Tag Archives: biology

Congratulations to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou, and Donna Strickland!

The 2018 Physics Nobel Prize was announced this week, awarded to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou, and Donna Strickland for their work in laser physics.

nobel2018Some Nobel prizes recognize discoveries of the fundamental nature of reality. Others recognize the tools that make those discoveries possible.

Ashkin developed techniques that use lasers to hold small objects in place, culminating in “optical tweezers” that can pick up and move individual bacteria. Mourou and Strickland developed chirped pulse amplification, the current state of the art in extremely high-power lasers. Strickland is only the third woman to win the Nobel prize in physics, Ashkin at 96 is the oldest person to ever win the prize.

(As an aside, the phrase “optical tweezers” probably has you imagining two beams of laser light pinching a bacterium between them, like microscopic lightsabers. In fact, optical tweezers use a single beam, focused and bent so that if an object falls out of place it will gently roll back to the middle of the beam. Instead of tweezers, it’s really more like a tiny laser spoon.)

The Nobel announcement emphasizes practical applications, like eye surgery. It’s important to remember that these are research tools as well. I wouldn’t have recognized the names of Ashkin, Mourou, and Strickland, but I recognized atom trapping, optical tweezers, and ultrashort pulses. Hang around atomic physicists, or quantum computing experiments, and these words pop up again and again. These are essential tools that have given rise to whole subfields. LIGO won a Nobel based on the expectation that it would kick-start a vast new area of research. Ashkin, Mourou, and Strickland’s work already has.

Different Fields, Different Worlds

My grandfather is a molecular biologist. When we meet, we swap stories: the state of my field and his, different methods and focuses but often a surprising amount of common ground.

Recently he forwarded me an article by Raymond Goldstein, a biological physicist, arguing that biologists ought to be more comfortable with physical reasoning. The article is interesting in its own right, contrasting how physicists and biologists think about the relationship between models, predictions, and experiments. But what struck me most about the article wasn’t the content, but the context.

Goldstein’s article focuses on a question that seemed to me oddly myopic: should physical models be in the Results section, or the Discussion section?

As someone who has never written a paper with either a Results section or a Discussion section, I wondered why anyone would care. In my field, paper formats are fairly flexible. We usually have an Introduction and a Conclusion, yes, but in between we use however many sections we need to explain what we need to. In contrast, biology papers seem to have a very fixed structure: after the Introduction, there’s a Results section, a Discussion section, and a Materials and Methods section at the end.

At first blush, this seemed incredibly bizarre. Why describe your results before the methods you used to get them? How do you talk about your results without discussing them, but still take a full section to do it? And why do reviewers care how you divide things up in the first place?

It made a bit more sense once I thought about how biology differs from theoretical physics. In theoretical physics, the “methods” are most of the result: unsolved problems are usually unsolved because existing methods don’t solve them, and we need to develop new methods to make progress. Our “methods”, in turn, are often the part of the paper experts are most eager to read. In biology, in contrast, the methods are much more standardized. While papers will occasionally introduce new methods, there are so many unexplored biological phenomena that most of the time researchers don’t need to invent a new method: just asking a question no-one else has asked can be enough for a discovery. In that environment, the “results” matter a lot more: they’re the part that takes the most scrutiny, that needs to stand up on its own.

I can even understand the need for a fixed structure. Biology is a much bigger field than theoretical physics. My field is small enough that we all pretty much know each other. If a paper is hard to read, we’ll probably get a chance to ask the author what they meant. Biology, in contrast, is huge. An important result could come from anywhere, and anyone. Having a standardized format makes it a lot easier to scan through an unfamiliar paper and find what you need, especially when there might be hundreds of relevant papers.

The problem with a standardized system, as always, is the existence of exceptions. A more “physics-like” biology paper is more readable with “physics-like” conventions, even if the rest of the field needs to stay “biology-like”. Because of that, I have a lot of sympathy for Goldstein’s argument, but I can’t help but feel that he should be asking for more. If creating new mathematical models and refining them with observation is at the heart of what Goldstein is doing, then maybe he shouldn’t have to use Results/Discussion/Methods in the first place. Maybe he should be allowed to write biology papers that look more like physics papers.