Why Physics Is Not a Discipline: Physics is not just what occurs in Dept of Physics


EXCERPT: [...] Some of the key reasons for the divorce [between physics & biology] are summarized in Ernst Mayr’s 2004 book "What Makes Biology Unique". [...] He identifies four fundamental features of physics that distinguish it from biology. It is essentialist (dividing the world into sharply delineated and unchanging categories, such as electrons and protons); it is deterministic (this always necessarily leads to that); it is reductionist (you understand a system by reducing it to its components); and it posits universal natural laws, which in biology are undermined by chance, randomness, and historical contingency. Any physicists will tell you that this characterization of physics is thoroughly flawed, as a passing familiarity with quantum theory, chaos, and complexity would reveal.

But Mayr’s argument gets more interesting—if not actually more valid—when he claims that what makes biology truly unique is that it is concerned with purpose: with the designs ingeniously forged by blind mutation and selection during evolution. Particles bumping into one another on their random walks don’t have to do anything. But the genetic networks and protein molecules and complex architectures of cells are shaped by the exigencies of survival: they have a kind of goal. And physics doesn’t deal with goals, right? [...] “It makes no sense to ask what is the purpose or goal of an electron, a molecule, a planet or a mountain.”

Purpose or teleology are difficult words in biology: They all too readily suggest a deterministic goal for evolution’s “blind watchmaker,” [...] But there’s no escaping the compunction to talk about function in biology: Its components and structures play a role in the survival of the organism and the propagation of genes. The thing is, physical scientists aren’t deterred by the word either.

[...] Examples like these give us confidence that biology does have a physics to it. Bialek has no patience with the common refrain that biology is just too messy [...] He is confident that there can be “a theoretical physics of biological systems that reaches the level of predictive power that has become the standard in other areas of physics.” Without it, biology risks becoming mere anecdote and contingency. [...] We don’t yet know quite what a physics of biology will consist of. But we won’t understand life without it....

[...] Saying that physics knows no boundaries is not the same as saying that physicists can solve everything. [...] The issue is not who “owns” particular problems in science, but about developing useful tools for thinking about how things work [...] Physics is not what happens in the Department of Physics. The world really doesn’t care about labels, and if we want to understand it then neither should we....

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