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Comparative Difficulty of Sciences?

  1. Nov 24, 2014 #1
    Before I get blasted by anyone, I just wanted to say that I'm asking this as a matter of curiosity and am in no way suggesting that some people/academic subjects are "better" or "worse" than others. It's strictly an intellectual question for me with no personal meaning or any other type of value attached to it.

    With that said, I'm curious if there's some kind of hierarchy of difficulty within the sciences? For example, I'll sometimes hear (again, nothing personal here, but just speaking non-judgmentally and as a matter of fact) that biology is one of the "easier" sciences, while math and physics are considered the hardest. Of course, this seems relative to the person and not necessarily inherent in the sciences themselves. But, nevertheless, the general view I get is that sciences like geology, biology, oceanography, etc. are comparatively easier than ones like engineering, mathematics, physics, etc.

    First, are these opinions quite popular in your own circles? And, if so, what seems to be the reasoning behind them? In other words, why is math considered harder than biology and so on? What characteristics of it make for a more difficult subject?

    Hopefully no one takes offense to this question. It's just one of those things I hear a lot and have actually wondered about myself. I don't have a ton of science experience, but I do sometimes sit back and wonder if one is just harder than another for me and why that is.
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  3. Nov 24, 2014 #2
    Math isn't usually considered a science.

    People who think math is hard often think physics is the hardest science because it uses a lot of math. I was a bio major, but switched to physics which was easier for me probably because the math came easier than the concepts in biology.

    In my experience my fellow physics students and professors were all quite full of themselves and their physics education. They mostly, and honestly, believed what they studied was the hardest and most worthwhile subject in existence.
  4. Nov 24, 2014 #3


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    There you go. You've answered your own question.
  5. Nov 24, 2014 #4
    Maybe the major itself, but making a substantial (or even insubstantial) contribution to the literature of some biology subfield is very challenging. Granted, I think this is easier to do than in say, high energy particle theory, but this has nothing to do with the intrinsic difficulty, but rather has something to do with the fact that physics, as a somewhat anachronistic discipline, has generally run out of meaningful things to do unless it involves an applied problem, in which case it's not quite physics anymore.
  6. Nov 25, 2014 #5
    everything you list except maths is just a subset of physics that became so big that it was separated.

    Go take a look at the Hogdkin-Huxley model. Is it "easy" biology? Or is it "hard" physics? Looking at random papers on the internet, it kinda looks like electronics too.
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2014
  7. Nov 25, 2014 #6
    I get the point you're trying to make, but I think you'd struggle to derive natural selection from physical principles.
  8. Nov 25, 2014 #7
    You're right, my wording wasn't precise.
    Biology did not became big and then separated like other fields did, but it was approached from a non-physics angle in the first place, because it handles systems which are so complex where it doesn't make sense to do otherwise.
    But this is a thing humans did, and with more computing power and all that exotic quantum stuff, maybe one day we will be able to approach it from the other side too. I mean, that's what all those efforts about realistic brain simulation are about right?
  9. Nov 25, 2014 #8
    Physics provides the most basic laws of nature. This means it is the most simple because the problems it deals with are problems that are not only solvable but often idealized.

    In biology you have problems that are so complex physically, one doesn't even try to solve it. Does that mean it is easier? Maybe. But only for the time being.

    In the end hydrogen atom is a lot simpler to describe than a cell. Not even a supercomputer can solve how one single protein folds.
  10. Nov 25, 2014 #9
    I did some research in volcanology for ~1.5 years. I did a lot of computational stuff where I solved partial differential equations among other things. I also implemented a way to visualize the results graphically as a simulation. Just depends I guess...
  11. Nov 26, 2014 #10
    I would have thought people would be rushing to solve those problems. lol. :D Is there some barrier to solving those problems in biology? Any examples?

    Are you serious about supercomputers not being able to solve how a single protein folds? WOW! Would have never guessed something like that. Interesting. I guess that does sound very difficult!!
  12. Nov 26, 2014 #11


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    Not all physics problems are solvable. There are quite a few things which physics has difficulty describing. As for physics being the simplest of the sciences, whatever that means, there are quite a few physicists who wrestle with quantum mechanics or general relativity or a unified field theory who would take issue with your assertion.
  13. Nov 26, 2014 #12
    yeah I don't agree it's simpler just because it deals with idealized systems.

    Biologists idealize complex systems too, e.g. the malthusian growth model. And even if you can complicate those systems, you never get to the point where concepts are hard to understand before it doesn't make much difference for the end result or before you reach the computational limits of our civilization (or your institution).
    Physics instead is all about looking further, even if the study of big biological systems or mechanical engineering doesn't care.

    that's pretty cool, did you simulate the actual rock and lava?
  14. Nov 26, 2014 #13
    It's apples and oranges, but it does seem to be the case that some of the most common difficulties people have are with math (including the math used in other subjects). We all know how many people say they hate math. We don't hear any big "I hate oceanography" trends. Even "I hate physics", though not uncommon, is not nearly as common as "I hate math". This is partly because people aren't usually required to take a physics class if they really want to avoid it and few people take one on oceanography. I might also venture to say that math is probably the worst-taught subject, which accounts for part of its difficulty and unpopularity. It's difficult, though, because it's hard to teach in a one-size-fits-all context. Worse teaching for me may be better teaching for someone else.

    Another math has is the proofs classes, which have a reputation for taking out large numbers of people who thought they were good at math before that point.

    So, I think math is difficult in that it has a high barrier to entry. Doesn't necessarily mean it's harder than other subjects because that really depends on the person and the specifics of what they are doing and the difficulties may be apples and oranges difficulties that can't really be very meaningfully weighed against each other.
  15. Nov 26, 2014 #14
    Physicists are still technically dealing with the simplest possible systems. Electron positron scattering involves interactions with two fundamental particles; by contrast, a protein is a many-body, highly heterogeneous system consisting of nuclei and electrons. It turns out that more reductionism one indulges in, the more convoluted the rules become, to the point where one blunders into severe diminishing returns (QG remains inconceivably far from experimental reach, and particle physics remains largely bereft of connections with the other sciences or meaningful applications, with a few exceptions). Indeed elementary particles are something of an idealization, in that a thorough understanding of their behavior has shed little light on anything else in nature; hyper-reductionist particle physics is a mostly self referential field, although some of its mathematical formalism has spread to other disciplines*. That particular field makes up a small portion of modern physics and is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Why would anybody be excited about new physics if one can only see it at ludicrously high energies and small distance scales?

    Biology has never been reduced to a set of master equations or mathematical laws. Full cell models are extremely intricate machines created by massive collaborations and featuring sophisticated networks of systems of stochastic differential equations and so on. It remains an open question as to whether or not there are fundamental organizational principles which can be cast in a mathematical form and which can be used to make what one might call biological predictions. Biological predictions are typically made by heuristic, ad-hoc models which possess widely varying utility.

    Very few good mathematical models existed in biology until relatively recently, and even then it remains a very difficult business. Multi-scaling and coarse graining are the major obstacles to more powerful mathematical models of biological systems. Take proton transfer reactions or photosynthetic proteins. The conformational changes of the protein are relevant to these phenomena, and the tool of choice for probing such changes is semi-classical, and therefore does not describe, say, the electrical coherence between the pigment molecules. A transporter protein embedded in a membrane ought to have a reasonable description in terms of simplified order parameters rather than an explicit description in terms of all the coordinates, yet no good heuristic models or formal mathematical prescription exists to do so.

    Even quantifying the different conformational states is challenging. No mathematical prescription exists to uniquely partition the phase space. Theorists and computationalists instead depend upon experimenters to obtain the relevant crystal structures.

    Such problems are also faced as one attempts to describe the system in a global sense. Experimentally understanding the endocrine system, for instance, is extremely challenging. Zooming all the way out from the genome to the organism remains a fantasy; attempts to do so are driven by bioinformatics, not a genuine theoretical understanding.

    *In particular, I've been looking at texts which investigate the link between QFT and critical phenomena. Critical dynamics are a major feature of many biological systems. It is quite astonishing to me that the only major methods for investigating protein conformational change are either heuristic or brute force. This is partly why biophysics/quantitative biology is an exciting field.
  16. Nov 26, 2014 #15
    I'd say, for undergrad degrees, it generally follows the trend biology - chemistry - physics - math.

    Although, once you get to physics and math, it really depends on your personality and learning style. I find advanced math to be easier than physics. Nothing is left out, there is no hand waving, and it is rigorous (in a good way) and precise. Physicists are often sloppy with their math. They throw in variables without defining them, and they take away others without explanation.

    if you take away nothing else from this thread, remember, always label your axes!
  17. Nov 27, 2014 #16
    So you think idealized systems are used to make the problem more complex? I mean, you say right here that it doesn't make it 'simple' ie it doesn't simplify.
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