Saturday, March 1, 2008

Biology - a beautiful science!

NiNa and I have this ever on-going argument about the so-called factual nature of biology. [Well, it is ongoing coz I think he gets his kicks out of seeing me flare up each time he brings up the topic :) But that's another story.] He, once, even committed the sacrilege of comparing biology with social sciences and said that biology did not classify to be called a science.

I feel sorry for people who cannot see the beauty of biology as a science. What can be more fascinating than seeing Life around you and learning more about the same. Classical biology began with this urge to look at, appreciate and then, name and classify all that we see around us in nature. As the means of observation improved, the data collected became enormous and, at times, tedious to learn and memorise in entirety. But, this was a flaw in the manner in which biology was being taught rather than in the science. In fact, some facts are needed. Else, how can a medico recognise useful herbs from similar looking harmful weeds? How can a doctor identify and operate specifically on that one little artery that decides to get clogged? Facts are needed. They are the foundation on which new research is conducted. The problem, thus, is not with facts but with the memorization of the same.

Current research in biology has expanded well beyond the classical realms. While, a non-biologist stops learning biology right at 10th or 12th level, a modern day biologist - be it a biochemist, a molecular biologist or a biophysicist - needs to learn and understand well the basics of maths [statistics, calculus, matrices etc], physics [esp, thermodynamics, spectroscopic and microscopic techniques] as well as chemistry [organic chemistry, rate kinetics, etc] . Biology now applies all of these to biomolecules, and also to whole cells and tries to understand their functioning. While dealing with the regular problems - of collecting data, plotting it, analysing it - the biologists have to take additional care as their samples are living cells, that are affected by minute changes in growth medium and temperature, hence likely to be the cause of error. They should also take care to see their cells should not die. While physicists and chemists study behaviour of gases or molecules in isolation, biologists do the same, but within a complex system such as a living cell, where hundreds of metabolic pathways operate simultaneously, and pathways of uptake, utilisation and degradation of the molecule are many and intertwined, where the variables are several.

In spite of the complex and awe inspiring nature of biology, the "tech" people have a way of looking down upon it. What amazes me is the fact that these people are so blind so as to not see that several great biologists are people who started off as chemists or physicists, who later were exposed to and were taken up by the beautiful science that biology involves and switched fields. The statement that biologists are "muggus" and are people who are poor at science is probably a dictum taught to engineers along with their Math 101. The following cartoon I found at this wonderful site sums it all.

Just replace the girl with a biologist. And, you get the attitude these 'exalted' beings have towards biology. I sometimes feel sorry for these people who lost a chance to look into this wonderful miracle called Life and try and decipher how it works. I pity them and leave them to work with their non living chemicals and machines, in which the most exciting thing would be to find out a new reaction or a new method of solving an equation - which is something the biologist does regularly and more.


Nissim said...

what a REACTION!!
a wonderful EQUATION we have...

Nissim said...

By the way I did enjoy 'biology' while it dealt with cells and whatever went on inside them.
When biology becomes food wastage and biogas generation(and how many cows you need to break even :P) then it does qualify to be a social science. Don't think you will need to consider how many collisions you need to do to get a particle accelerator to break even.
By the way, the work you do is chemistry and physics and not biology as I mean it.
The social scientists might flare up at the fact that you consider the social sciences below dignity (you said "U just deglamourized my work in one sentence").

"When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind" -- Lord Kelvin

Nissim said...

Here is the full quote:

"When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the state of science."
Lord Kelvin.

Bastet said...

Well, Lord Kelvin was definitely not a spiritual man, then :P The tons of Swamijis would be disappointed to know that since they cannot quantify God's power in the number of kilowatts, their knowledge would be meager and unsatisfactory.

Jokes apart, biology is integrative. You cannot say we do physics and chemistry. That shows your insistence at being blind and refusing to accept the vast spheres biology covers. Yes, we do use physics and chemistry. But, we are applying the knowledge and principles of the same to understanding the functioning of biological systems. Thus, it is BIOLOGY. You cannot be that dumb witted not to see that.

The kind of things you talk about exist in other sciences as well. Environmental science and pollution is included in chemistry as well. You do read about the MO theory and about resonance and electron clouds and orbital shapes - tell me, do you see any of it? And, finally, coming to the uncertainty principle, you do know that there will be some uncertainty no matter what. you cannot have accurate numbers for everything. Meta physics and quantum physics is extrapolated to topics such as free will, and, finally ends up bordering on the edge of the unknown. That does not mean it is not science.

All tests need not be quantitative. Most chemical salt analysis are qualitative - speaking of colors of precipitates and so on.

Finally, someone initially thought finance was boring. Later realised the fascination it can cause. I just ask people not to be judgmental without knowing what they are actually talking about. :P

Nissim said...

For someone who needs to understand the modeling of a neuron as an electric circuit I get what you are saying.
The claim I made was
1) long ago
2) out of frustration at having to mug useless facts,
3) under the influence of such great thinkers as Richard Feynman
4) Some'one' never thought Finance was boring...just that research was more interesting. And some-1 has the choice to change his/her views.
I am you worked up again.

Some other gems from the Lord(Kelvin):

“In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.”

“The more thoroughly I conduct scientific research, the more I believe that science excludes atheism.”

Bastet said...

well, nothing to say just tht Lord Kelvin was a pompous and ignorant ass and so will be those who take his words to be the dictum.