Physicists Are Like ...

Physicists laugh a lot

In Nature the essay "Thirteen tips for engaging with physicists, as told by a biologist" is, like all generalizations* wrong — but it's also, like all* generalizations, insightful and fun. Physician-biologist Ken Kosik describes how he transcended disciplines and "... devised a few simple rules to help the biologist in me to cross the divide between the life and physical sciences. In learning to talk to physicists, I discovered that I can communicate better with everyone and clarify for myself what I do and do not understand in my own field."

His 13 tips, summarized:

  1. Understand what 'I do not understand' means — "... 'Understanding' operates at different planes in different disciplines, and when a physicist seeks understanding, what they hope to grasp might differ from the knowledge that a biologist seeks. ..."
  2. Seek common ground — "... when physicists ask a biology question, they want to apply the thinking of physics to biology; specifically, they are searching for universal, mathematical explanations. Physicists move away from settled questions. In biology, much less seems settled. Emphasizing what you know is less interesting than saying what you need to learn. ..."
  3. Recognize the posture of false modesty — "... physicists often display a false modesty regarding their knowledge of biology. A physicist will say biology is much more difficult than physics ..."
  4. Keep in mind the maths shortfall in biology — "For most biological phenomena, we don't have precise equations – unlike in physics. ..."
  5. Don't be flummoxed by physicists' maths — "In discussing their own work, physicists will often reach for a formula. After they write the equation and stare at it as if pondering a Mark Rothko painting, they might proffer an explanation. ..."
  6. Scale matters — "Consider this matter of perspective: most of the time, what a physicist does is much smaller or much bigger, or much colder or much hotter, than anything we biologists do. ..."
  7. Consider precision — "Physicists require much greater certitude to draw a conclusion. ... For them, attaining a result with a P value of 0.05 is like the chance of hitting a barn door with a baseball: you can't miss it."
  8. Avoid jargon — "The fastest way to make a physicist's eyes glaze over is to recite biological jargon, such as gene lists and pathways. Come to think of it, it's the fastest way to make anyone's eyes glaze over."
  9. Skip some details — "Physicists do not want to know about all your controls. They want the concepts ... Physicists make judgements on the basis of clear, cogent, compelling ideas."
  10. Manage expectations — "Physicists expect you to build your own equipment. ..."
  11. Understand optimization versus the 'good-enough' principle — "Biological processes carry evolutionary baggage, and therefore arrive at solutions that might not be optimal. ..."
  12. Consider a physicist's perspective on reductionism — "... Systems approaches to biology that involve large numbers of variables can be inherently interesting to physicists because they conceptually resemble problems in statistical mechanics that relate microscopic and macroscopic properties with very large degrees of freedom – and exact solutions are not possible. ..."
  13. Physicists laugh a lot — "Not only is the humour of physicists arcane, but almost anything unexpected can provide a jocular moment. Theirs are the ultimate inside jokes, which are often not obviously funny. But laugh along anyway – even if you don't find the humour, they won't know the difference."

*including this one, eh?!

(cf No Concepts At All (2001-02-22), Physics Envy (2001-04-11), Physics Words (2001-10-22), My Speciality (2002-07-28), Theoretically Known (2006-05-29), Helpful Homilies (2007-09-02), What Physics Is (2007-09-16), The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics (2008-02-17), Know and Do (2009-12-21), Art of Physics (2011-03-01), Humility, Physics, and Philosophy (2011-11-13), Physics Hubris (2012-07-14), Simplicity via Abstraction (2016-01-07), Know and Do (2019-05-25), Operating System of the Universe (2019-10-17), ...) - ^z - 2020-01-11