What's ailing biology?

Wilson da Silva, Editor-in-Chief of COSMOS, a science publication in Australia, was attending a lecture by Freeman Dyson lecture at the Perimeter Institute in Canada when Dyson said, "It's sad but true that most discoveries in biology are made by physicists."

Hubris?  Dyson is a theoretical physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum field theory and for being a modern day contrarian - as you would expect a "Scientist As Rebel" to be in that old-school, fiercely independent intellectual way not really possible in today's government-funded science machine.   And his mentality may have cost him a Nobel Prize since, as he said, “I think it’s almost true without exception if you want to win a Nobel Prize, you should have a long attention span, get hold of some deep and important problem and stay with it for 10 years. That wasn’t my style."

Or not.  Stephen Hawking is the ultimate academic insider and hasn't won a Nobel - and may never - because only the Peace prize is given based on popularity or politics.  It isn't like an Oscar, where you can get a Lifetime Achievement Award just because someone realizes you never won a real one.  Heck, you can even get Peace prize for a campaign and a commencement speech, as in the case of American president Barack Obama.

Not so in Physics - or in Physiology or Medicine, where biologists can win.  Those require performance and overlap between fields in the modern world is rare.    Why does he think that biology's advancements are made by physicists?   Well, Louis Pasteur, Sewall Wright, Max Delbrück, and Francis Crick all did crucial biology but came from the physical sciences.   And it may be the case where physical sciences can help biology again.

Dyson is not alone in his belief.  Anna Barker, deputy director of the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), called up Paul Davies, the Arizona State cosmologist, a few years ago to get fresh perspective about the 'War on Cancer' because pesky journalists had started asking biologists what had happened with all the billions spent on a 'cure for cancer' and why it was suddenly being said it can't be cured.

He jokes that his best attribute is being unencumbered by experience in biology - he is implying life sciences groupthink, which makes biologists annoyed (naturally) and they have to have been giggling a little when his name showed up as co-author on a study claiming bacteria could use arsenic in their DNA.  Hey, they can laugh but Science published it.

Davies is an interdisciplinary guy, as is Dyson.  It doesn't win Nobel prizes but it advances science, it asks awkward questions of science and scientists and, because it isn't some crank skeptic outside science, it can't just be dismissed.

Biologists are now having to come to grips with nonlinearity in systems the way physics - and certainly engineering - have had to for decades.  

Last week I went to U.C. Santa Cruz to meet with a few people about finding the origin of life; it's heady stuff and, not surprisingly, all three write here on Science 2.0 rather than wait years to publish results.  They were Professor Emeritus Dave Deamer, Professor Richard (Dick) Gordon and soon-to-be Dr. Bruce Damer and the topic was using physics and chemistry to understand biology.

So I asked for some insight.   Prof. Deamer replied he couldn't think of a Nobel in Medicine or Physiology that was won by a physicist any time recently - and he knows practically every Nobel laureate of the last 20 years - which dispels the idea that at the present time physicists are doing important biology work, aside from creating technology in medicine and biology, like X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging.   

But as we discussed during those meetings, coffee and beer, it is now possible to examine the cell in terrific detail - truly its physics at the molecular level - and so biologists may be discovering what physicists once had to learn.  Namely that the ability to think in terms of the isolated, genes or molecules, means sight of the system is lost.   At least for a time.

"We understand genes, but we don't understand genomes," Dyson said at his Perimeter Institute lecture and most biologists would agree that is true.   But does that mean it takes physicists to figure it out?

Perhaps.  It's not a new idea.   

"The morphology and the biophysics of the developing embryo will merge into one single
quantitative science, which shall show us how the metrical aspects of the finished living
organism are derived from the metrical aspects of its egg", wrote embryologist Joseph Needham in 1931.

Dr. Gordon wrote, in response to my questions:

"We, collectively, have been working on the problem of embryonic development for almost two centuries now, if we take our modern history as starting with Von Baer (1828). We have vacillated between biology as a unique science and biology as a science either standing on or derived from physics and chemistry. These philosophical stances have been taken without
doing our homework. A glimpse at our introductory biology textbooks shows the lie: they contain no mathematics, little if any physics, and only the most rudimentary chemistry. The faith that our problems will ultimately yield and be integrated with physics and chemistry is cheap, when we
eschew the discipline of mastering those fields. We fail our students when we don't push them to go beyond our own limitations."

Biology is not all embryos but understanding how life arises is one of the great questions in science.

So it may not be that embryology and other biology problems are being solved by physicists as much as they will need to be solved by physics, and that means biologists will have to be just plain better at science than everyone else - true polymaths in the vein of Dyson and Davies and Gordon and Deamer - learning not just biology but mechanics, materials science, chaos theory, stochastic processes, mathematical physics, optics and a good dose of philosophy of science.

If so, it may also be that future biologists will be recruited from the physical sciences and engineering, and acquire their own 'feeling for the organism', which Evelyn Fox Keller said about plant geneticist Barbara McClintock, Nobel laureate in 1983.

If we're going holistic with our Nobel laureates in biology, we can also provide a nugget from physics as well.  "Every advance in knowledge brings us face to face with the mystery of our own being ," said Max Planck in 1932.   So the more disciplines pitching in to help, the faster we will get there.