Can a physicist fix a cell?

For those of you who haven’t read the article “Can a biologist fix a radio?” allow me to summarize: physicists and engineers are awesome, biologists are idiots. I could (and at some point, likely will) ramble on at greater length about the litany of problems that I find with the author’s entire premise and conclusions but here I’d like to focus myself a bit more. Of course, you can and should read the article yourself but my one sentence summary is sufficient prior knowledge for the current purpose.

I’m frequently annoyed whenever I hear people citing this editorial as insightful. The fact of the matter is that the author poses an extremely interesting question: how would individuals that were trained in different disciplines approach a novel problem such as understanding or fixing a strange new object (a radio)?

This thought experiment could be really interesting, but unfortunately in its published form this is not the case. Perhaps my real problem with this editorial is that I imagine the thought experiment as if the object of understanding were a strange foreign object – something that no one knows anything about a priori. The radio analogy serves merely as a nice way to ground this potentially esoteric thought experiment.

From this starting point, the author lays out/mocks the potential straw-man-biologist approach: a) get your hands on a lot of these radios, b) take them apart and catalog the pieces noting various qualities, c) remove components and see how the function of the radio is altered, d) shoot radios with a shotgun until they cease to function and try to determine why, etc. To this relatively simple list I would also add that a biologist would most certainly try to understand inputs and outputs. It appears this alien thing functions with electricity so lets send a pulse of electricity through it and maybe we can track where this electricity goes and how that is altered when components are missing. I could go on listing the types of experiment that a humble biologist such as myself would propose, but I would rather ask the question of how would an engineer or physicist approach the problem?

However, the author doesn’t specify in this regard and rather states “we know with near certainty that an engineer, or even a trained repairman could fix the radio”. Oh, we’re talking about actual radios. Literally, the kind of radios that engineers who are required to take electronics classes grow up building and diagramming as part of their training. Not a strange new object for which a radio serves as an analogy. An actual radio.

When the question is framed this way, I submit that an average electrical engineer would do a much better job at fixing the radio than an average biologist. Next you’re going to tell me that if you want to solve an unknown equation, the best people to ask would be mathematicians and not biologists! Or that a biologist wouldn’t be the best person to manage your stock market portfolio. I’d be on the edge of my seat in anticipation of the conclusions of “Can a biologist solve the middle-east peace process?”.

My point here is that this could be an interesting thought experiment were it phrased differently. Its not only that biologists and physicists learn different material in their classes. I believe that to some degree we also learn different ways of thinking and approaching problems, and that the biological education has many shortcomings and biology as a whole has and will continue to benefit from physical scientists. When I sit down with my boss (a physicist) and show him particular data, his mind goes in completely different directions from my own. To some extent this is knowledge of the field and experience publishing, but to another degree I’m sure that these differences are the product of ways of thinking which clearly differ between the two of us. I’m just not sure exactly how we think different, how these ways of thinking are related to particular parts of our education, and whether different means that something is unequivocally better or even better suited to certain types of problems or not.

So how would a physicist or an engineer understand or fix a strange foreign object for which we will use a radio as an analogy? As a lowly biologist, I don’t know the answer to that question, and would love for someone to articulate it. However, let me stop you right now before I’m swamped with comments that physicists and engineers think in “models” and “first principles” and rather than a naive reductionist approach a physical scientist would “think holistically” and blah blah blah. I have no need for this verbal display of scientific pseudo-speak. Give me concrete examples of how a physical scientist would go about understanding a strange foreign object like a radio via experimentation.

Perhaps physical scientists wouldn’t catalog parts and iteratively take out objects and assess the function the way a biologist naively would. But until I hear different, my on-going assumption is that a physicist would build a radio accelerator and hurtle 2 radios at each other at the speed of light to figure out how radios function based on the scatter of the resulting collision. I joke (kind of) namely to make light of the original authors condescending tone to biologists, but also because I wish to point out that the reductionist approach is not even remotely unique to biology. I’m not so sure that the answers I hopefully receive will differ that significantly from a biologist’s prescriptions.

I’m not sure that biology was ever the isolated discipline that some would have you believe, but at very least I wish to make it clear that a lot of physical scientists are currently making great biological discoveries. Of course, so are biologists. And – this is crucial – physical scientists and biologists alike are are failing together in countless areas. Think: every unsolved biological problem. If physical scientists think different, convince me this difference exists within the framework of our little analogy. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, convince me that different is better.

—Adam Hockenberry