Friday, July 29, 2011

Physics, Biology, and our growing understanding of society


Physics, Biology, and our growing understanding of society
By Kim Gargar

(Dr. Tapang’s colleague Kim Gargar contributed today’s column.)

MANY scientists have realized that the distinction between biology and physics is artificial; that if we are to completely understand living things, we must first accept that each of them are composed of matter wherein various forms of transformation of energy and matter occur within and with their surroundings. While “mainstream” physicists keep themselves busy either with elucidating how fundamental particles work or with finding ways to manipulate inanimate condensed-matter for the development of new materials, an increasing number of their colleagues are helping biologists answer diverse biological questions piece by piece, and for various goals.

The current trend in explaining biological phenomena is to rely on a type of reasoning attributed to Charles Darwin. As stated in the book by Russian Marxist philosopher Viktor Grigoryevich Afanasyev Dialectical Materialism, Darwin “proved that the complex, higher organisms had been formed from the simple, lower ones through the action of the laws of natural selection inherent in nature itself. He also showed that man was a product of nature, a result of the prolonged evolution of living matter.” Add to this the fact that such evolution of matter is ever continuing and actually gave rise to human societies. This is traditionally not touched upon in biology.

Physicists have already unified matter and energy, as embodied in simple form by the famous equation E=mc2. “The theory has been worked on for so long that remaining problems are very subtle and deeply embedded,” said biophysicist Ned Wingreen.

The physics of atoms and of molecules have also been at a certain level of unification as shown by tools currently used by theoretical chemists and condensed-matter physicists, again with many subtleties still left to be uncovered. Darwin and other evolutionary biologists’ successful attempts at explaining in a similarly unifying manner the diversity of biological species has led biology to a level almost at par with how less-evolved forms of matter being studied in physics and chemistry are described. But even more questions on details continue to keep biologists busy.

The difficult task of explaining biology can be approached systematically. The general flow of the evolution of species is from the sea to land. To understand species which evolved inland, there’s the temptation to look at simpler, less evolved marine species for hints. Is it valid to make conclusions about, say, insects based on findings about, say, planktons? Some biologists would say that it depends on the specific question being raised. But can insights be gained into more evolved species by looking at less evolved ones? Many biologists would reply yes. In fact, this has been the trend in many areas of biology: to learn from simpler, so-called “model organisms” to understand phenomena in more complex species. Many medical practices are actually borne out of such trends; human diseases have been studied for the past few decades using lower species of mammals such as primates and rodents.

It seems that there is no other way to approach biological problems than to resort to modeling methodologies. This is where physicists’ training in using models to explain various physical phenomena become handy. Modeling does not necessarily require the mathematization of the problem, although mathematics have an important role in making more precise conclusions. The very fresh field in science called systems biology, for instance, makes use of modeling methods. Organisms are stripped down to the cellular level and their inner workings in order to know how they work.

We are reminded of what the people of China did, as told in the book Silage Choppers and Snake Spirits, in one of their attempts to develop their dairy industry during the 1960s. They bought things from abroad and looked at their parts and how they were built. The Chinese found it more fruitful to develop their own machinery by improving on foreign technology than to start from scratch or to duplicate them.

The more evolved matter is, the more subtle questions there are. If society is considered as the form in the historical development of matter higher than that of organisms, then expect the task of explaining society as a more complicated one. This is a tricky science area where personal biases come into play.

Scientists are part of society — the system they seek to understand. Society itself is not a homogenous mix of individuals; it’s characterized by social classes where members of each class have different natures and interests from those in other classes. Scientists belong to one such social class, the petty bourgeois class if we may use the term; and if they don’t take this fact consciously into their theories of society, then such theories are bound to fail in the long run.

Mr. Kim Gargar, a long time active member of AGHAM, has earned his MS in Physics in UP Diliman and is now finishing his PhD in chronobiology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.


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