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Richard Gordon gordonr at cc.UManitoba.CA
Thu Nov 17 18:17:48 EST 1994

Thought this old article of mine might amuse those physicists trying=20
their hand at biology. -Dick Gordon, U. Manitoba

Physicist to Biologist, A First Order Phase Transition

Richard Gordon
Departments of Radiology, Physics and Electrical and Computer=20
Room ON104, Health Sciences Centre, 820 Sherbrook Street
Winnipeg, MB R3A 1R9 Canada
Phone: (204) 787-1076,  Fax: (204) 783-8565,  E-mail: GordonR at cc.UManitoba.=

Reprinted from: Gordon, R. (1992). Physicist to biologist: A first order=20
phase transition. Bulletin of the Canadian Society for Theoretical=20
Biology  (10), 4-5.

Most biologists have little or no training in mathematics, physics, or=20
physical chemistry. Since they are mostly taught by biologists, this=20
situation changes slowly. Some of the best biologists started out as=20
physicists or physical chemists, including Louis Pasteur, Sewall Wright,=20
Max Delbruck, and Francis Crick. Mathematicians, such as Norbert Wiener=20
and Alan Turing, have also made substantial contributions to biology.

On rare occasions in your career you may luck out and find a biologist=20
who will meet you half way. But if you want to make a serious foray into=20
biology, you will probably have to become a biologist. This does not mean=
surrendering your thought processes so carefully honed as a physicist. On=
the contrary. You must maintain that intellectual integrity, that careful=
distinction of cause and effect, that demand for logical and numerical=20
explanation, to be able to make a substantial contribution to biology.

As a biologist you must come to know your organism first hand. You will=20
generally not find the data you need in the biological literature. You=20
will probably have to get it yourself. And so you will raise bacteria, or=
newts, or a garden of gourds. You will come to appreciate individual=20
variation, and perhaps put it to advantage. That small deviation from the=
expected occurs frequently in organisms, and hints at explanations. If=20
you are mostly theoretically inclined, you will have to roll up your=20
sleeves, and start your own laboratory.=20

You will use microscopes, microtomes, biotechnology, etc., in a critical,=
quantitative manner, probably designing and building new instruments en=20
route. Thus you will bring the tools of physics to bear on your=20
biological problems. The other side of this coin, however, is to avoid=20
seeking a biological problem for your physical solutions.

As a newcomer with a fresh view, you must be prepared to sort through=20
thick jargon and critically disentangle what is useful and perhaps true=20
from vague and often wrong concepts. The best guideline here is to=20
assume: 1) the naming of something is no substitute for understanding it;=
2) the names given to things by biologists often reflect wishful thinking=
about our understanding of their functioning. For example, visual cortex=20
cells in the brain called "line detectors" don't detect lines. They=20
respond optimally to more or less linear visual stimuli, and perhaps=20
should have been given the more neutral name "linear receptive fields".=20
What they do for perception is not as clear as their name implies. On the=
other side, clear physical concepts, such as force, are rarely=20
recognized, let alone measured, in biology.

Allow yourself at least two years to achieve a critical understanding of=20
any biological field you enter. Remember that even the humble first year=20
biology undergraduate student is faced with memorizing more vocabulary=20
than a first year student of a language.

Be prepared for an immense literature, one or two orders of magnitude=20
more verbose than what you ordinarily encounter in physics. Acquire a=20
computer bibliography data base program and lots of second hand filing=20
cabinets to keep yourself sane.

You should band together in societies of biophysicists or theoretical=20
biologists or mathematical biologists, where you can effectively lobby=20
for representation on grants councils, for fair treatment by biology=20
editors, and for changes in biology curricula. If you want to determine=20
for yourself how big an uphill battle this is, just examine any=20
introductory biology text for physics or mathematics content. You=20
probably won't find any. When you try to bring your background into your=20
teaching to compensate, expect resistance from your biologically trained=20
colleagues and your students. Create niches, and fill them.

Biology is on its way to joining the precise sciences, and this is an=20
exciting time to be indulging in it. But the very personality types that=20
enter biology must shift, and you will find it necessary to set your=20
example and bring new kinds of minds along with you.

Don't enter biology timidly. There is no better background for it than=20
physics, tempered with a little humility about what is achievable via,=20
for example, physical chemistry. You'll need chutzpah: biology needs you=20
more than it knows or will thank you for. Enter because you want to, not=20
to please anyone else or do them  a favor. You'll have trials by fire or=20
firing squad. Your internal motivation to understand the living part of=20
the universe is what you need to stand firm.

Finally, I'd like to add a word about history, and complexity. Organisms,=
from viruses on up, are undoubtedly the most complex entities in our=20
known universe. Many biologists are overwhelmed by this complexity and=20
intellectually are closet vitalists, in their heart not believing that=20
life can be explained physically. You may have your doubts about the=20
completeness of contemporary physics. But until you push it until you're=20
up against a wall of incomprehension, you must seek explanations that=20
grow out of what we have come to understand of the nonliving universe.

The art of entering biology is to select:

1) soluble problems;
2) important problems;
3) the right organisms;
4) the right first approximations.

We must understand the nature of approximation and successive=20
approximation, and be prepared to recognize when this process fails and=20
it is time for a shift in paradigm. We now know the limitations of=20
epicycles and Newtonian mechanics. Expect similar lessons in biology.=20
Indeed, your greatest contributions in biology may be to change the=20
current paradigms.=CARead its history, and help make it.

Acknowledgements: Prepared while participating in the Winter School on=20
Dynamical Phenomena at Interfaces, Surfaces and Membranes, Ecole de=20
Physique Theorique, Les Houches, France, February 18-25, 1991, organized=20
by Daniel Beysens and Gabor Forgacs.

Completed April 30, 1991.

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