1. Not finding help here? Sign up for a free 30min tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Differences in Teaching Phys Vs. Chem/Bio?

  1. Aug 14, 2015 #1

    ZapperZ

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2016 Award

    First of all, what I'm citing is an opinion piece, so I don't intend to pass it off as a "peer-reviewed" idea. Still, I think it needs to be addressed because I never realized that this significant difference is present between physics and chemistry/biology.

    The opinion piece was uploaded to Arxiv and can be found here:

    http://arxiv.org/abs/1508.00273

    While it dealt with something that appears trivial, such as the wordings in the description of the academic goals of the Natural Sciences areas, I can't help feeling that the differences are more profound and fundamental than that. This is illustrated quite clearly by the author in the issue of either keeping or dropping the phrase "theoretical investigation" in the description of how knowledge is gathered and evaluated in these sciences.

    You may read the authors reply to this, but this is where I started to think of a possibly profound differences between physics and chem/bio, especially in Biology. This is contained in the rebuttal that the author received:

    Now, there is certainly an issue of terminology here. As stated by the author, in physics, we seldom use the phrase "hypothesis", because something that we consider to be a hypothesis is usually a "blind guess", or back-of-the-envelope calculations. This will never make it into publication and often seen only as a starting point for a more well-formed theory.

    But the more profound and fundamental issue here is the idea of the existence of a theory that is a "fact". While there are theories with a very high degree of validity and certainty, in physics, there is no such thing as a theory being a "fact". There are experimental facts, but no theoretical facts, at least not in the way it is described in biology as stated above. ALL theories in physics are still subject to being investigated, and they will continue to evolve as we know more and learn more.

    So I'm not sure if this is truly a real difference between Physics and Bio/Chem, or if it is simply the scientists in this particular school are the ones uniquely having this problem. We have people in all of those fields, and not knowing exactly how things are done in Biology and Chemistry, I defer to you to clarify this.

    I've always advised people to study science, even if they don't intend to be scientists, simply because of the benefits one get not only in the knowledge, but also in learning how we gather and acquire knowledge. Now, it seems that within the Natural Sciences, this process of acquiring knowledge may not be uniform throughout. I'd like to know if this is real.

    Zz.

    P.S. I wasn't sure where to post this. Even though this is an issue involving the academic education in Natural Sciences, it also is dealing with fundamental issues in each of the Natural Sciences field of studies. Since the manuscript was uploaded to the Education section of ArXiv, I followed the same topic line.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 14, 2015 #2

    Bystander

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    2016 Award

    As a physical chemist, neither "flesh nor fowl," I'll submit the observation that "the natural sciences" exist on a continuum ranging from the clean, well-defined systems investigated by physicists and subject to the seven(?) conservation laws, to the incredibly complex, messy systems of the "real world." The language and conventions that have grown up around studies of "real systems" includes the same words, and similar context, but can NOT be directly transliterated from one end of the continuum to the other.
     
  4. Aug 14, 2015 #3
    This was a very interesting read!

    I think the biology faculty he cites were mostly reacting to the constant attack that their field is under, specifically in the form of "evolution is just a theory". And so they (rightly) point out that evolution is a demonstrable fact, and by "theory" they mean something more like "the set of ideas that explain the phenomena we observe, and correctly predict phenomena yet to be observed at the time they were formulated" (yes, I came up with that on my own :-p). In that sense, then yes, biology is practically done, in the theoretical aspect (though I understand there's currently an emerging fad for epigenetics). There is no part of speciation that is inconsistent with ecology, for example. To the contrary, they fit in quite nicely.

    I majored in chemical engineering before switching to physics for grad school. Mostly I remember that chemistry is really, really hard, especially organic chemistry. Sure, there were different subjects that one learned, but I had a hard time abstracting theoretical principles from them. The only thing I could identify as a unifying theoretical principle was the periodic table. Maybe an actual chemist can help.

    Physicists, on the other hand, work with theories (sets of ideas) that are known to be limited, incomplete, or outright inconsistent, despite their elegance, rigor, and even experimental success. On one side we have dozens of decimal places of agreement between (theoretical) calculations and experiment; yet on the other, we know that there's something we're not getting about the ideas that produce those stunning results . So it seems that being well-rounded in theory means, for a physicist, to be perpetually puzzled. Puzzlement arises out of conflicts between ideas, theories are sets of ideas, and so... we study and develop theories, because we know for a fact that we're not done!

    Though it's fairly obvious that a biologist is amazed and puzzled by some observation (say, the bizarre mating behavior of some bird or something), I doubt that she's puzzled by the guiding principle that she will use to guide the research she is to perform. In physics, the guiding principles are themselves a source of puzzlement and wonder. I have a theory that this really is unique to physics (see what I did there? :biggrin:)
     
  5. Aug 14, 2015 #4
    I think the issue has mostly to do with the relative simplicity of physics compared to other fields (in terms of mathematical modeling). I am pretty ignorant when it comes to chemistry and biology, but I tend to agree that there is a difference in how science is approached and how terminology is used.

    For a minute let's go back to the philosophical origins of physics. Plato argued that true knowledge must be reasoned and that the senses were not to be trusted. In his Timaeus he outlined his cosmology/cosmogony which, among other things, included his geometric theory of matter: that all elements are composed of the platonic solids (and ultimately triangles) which can break apart and form elements of a different type. Now this theory doesn't pass the smell test for a theory in physics today. For one thing it does not allow for quantitative predictions (however, this was not Plato's goal). I was interested in Einstein quote from the article posted by Zz where he responds to the 'what if' question of his theory of general relativity being 'incorrect.'

    "When asked how he would have reacted had the experiment shown no deflection, Einstein famously responded 'I would have had to pity our dear Lord. The theory is correct all the same.'"

    I would not have expected such a response from Einstein. I think Plato might have responded similarly.

    Throughout the middle ages the 'science' of the schoolmen was similarly 'theoretically minded.' Bradwardine and Oresme both came up with the correct formulation for constantly accelerated motion long before Galileo, but the exercise to them was purely academic; they did not think that nature actually behaved this way.

    Aristotle was perhaps the first to place an emphasis on the interplay between inductive and deductive reasoning for achieving true scientific knowledge that is somewhat similar to modern day physics if you ignore the fact that he was interested in determining the so-called 'final causes.' Further down the line Bacon argued that science should be purely inductive (though his method was not fruit-bearing) and Descartes argued that science should be entirely deductive (except, interestingly, for his investigations into the nature of light where he performed extensive experiments). It seems like somewhat of a lucky accident that any theoretical progress was made at all. Recall Fermat's surprise when he discovered that his principle predicted the law of reflection and refraction. I can imagine a world where these type of discoveries did not happen and experimental physics would be a completely empirical science and 'theoretical physics' would be perhaps considered philosophy.

    This seems to be the (grossly simplified) way in which parts of chemistry, biology, medicine, and social sciences operate (as an outsider looking in). No doubt that this is largely due to the complexity of each field. Unless there is some breakthrough analogous to that of Fermat's Principle or Newton's Laws of Motion in other fields I can't see how the role of theory (in the physics sense) could be the same across the board.
     
  6. Aug 14, 2015 #5

    Bystander

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    2016 Award

    Jerry March, Advanced Organic Chemistry, puts all those hundreds (thousands?) of "name reactions" into a nice, tidy perspective --- there are only seven reactions in ALL of the whole field of chemistry; that, plus the never explicitly stated understanding that all reactions are possible is all there is to chemistry --- "the details are left as an exercise for the student/reader."
    Evolution is fact/observation; mechanisms of evolution are theories/hypotheses to be investigated.

    If one loosely defines activities of natural scientists as "observations and predictions of the properties and interactions of matter and energy," physicists have the luxury of dealing with operationally defined properties, and life scientists are faced with choosing operations to construct definitions.
     
  7. Aug 14, 2015 #6
    I wish someone had told me that when I went through two semesters of organic chemistry :))!

    I said:
    Then:
    I think we agree, more or less.

    Anyway, back to the point of the article that began this discussion: do you know if there's such a thing as a "theoretical" chemist or biologist? I remember that in the case of biology there was (is?) a debate about the mechanism at work in evolution: gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium. I understand the article (and the OP) to be wondering if these sorts of (theoretical?) disagreements, and the debates/experiments/observations by experts that attempt to settle them, merit the label "theoretical investigations". It would seem to me that they do, although the biology faculty at the particular university cited in this case seem to disagree.
     
  8. Aug 14, 2015 #7

    Bystander

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    2016 Award

    You and me both.
    "More," I suspect. That was a very sloppy transition of subject matter on my part. My bad.o:)
    Certainly, and every bit as dangerous in a lab as are theoretical physicists.
    Perhaps not recognized as such by biologists (don't know one way or the other), but certainly biologists who recognize various behaviors/phenomena as representative of classes to be examined as classes, those who study populations, and by now I've got my neck stuck out far enough for @Ryan_m_b to chop it off.

    Something else to keep in mind is that physics and chemistry have undergone fairly recent "reformations," cleaning out two millennia of just plain useless ideas; biology, and life sciences in general, have only recently, since the reformations in physics and chemistry, microscopes, polymerase chain reaction, etc., acquired the tools to actively investigate and sort through a two to three millennia accumulation of very detailed observations on everything from Galen's anatomy and physiology (good stuff), to folklore about spontaneous generation of life. Yes, the life sciences appear somewhat disorganized, but there's an enormous amount of information that can't just be pitched for the sake of a whole new start as was the case in the physical sciences.
     
  9. Aug 14, 2015 #8

    atyy

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    There isn't. I wouldn't take such claims seriously. It would be like saying there is a significant difference present between high energy physics and condensed matter.
     
  10. Aug 15, 2015 #9

    atyy

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Yes, that absolutely is theoretical biology. Just as in condensed matter we want to know what convenient emergent degrees of freedom are (eg. cooper pairs, phonons etc in superconductivity) which usually takes some guess work and there may not be a unique answer, these questions in evolution are about the convenient emergent degrees of freedom. There are still entertaining debates going on. eg. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20740005 and the multiple comments that followed it.

    Also, some of the great theorists in biology also did experiments, eg. Hodgkin and Huxley. However, there are others who don't do experiments, eg. Carl van Vreeswijk, Haim Sompolinsky or Nicolas Brunel. (OK, many of these had physics backgrounds, eg. Hodgkin worked on radar in the Second World War.)
     
  11. Aug 18, 2015 #10

    martinbn

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I think there is at least one significant difference, the amount of maths used at all levels. For example an introductory college course in physics will use quantitative methods, while a biology one could have zero maths.
     
  12. Aug 18, 2015 #11

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2016 Award

    Nice article- thanks for posting the link. Section 'D' is especially noteworthy, IMO. Also noteworthy is the distinction that author draws (on page 4) between testing Physics theories and Biology theories. It's worth pointing out that most of the non-Physics sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physiology, etc.) are moving towards quantitation for this very reason.
     
  13. Aug 18, 2015 #12

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2016 Award

    This is old-school thinking. The best counter-example is the growing field of soft condensed matter.

    Edit- also, consider the scope of these recent texts:

    https://www.amazon.com/Hemodynamica...439904938&sr=8-1&keywords=hemodynamical+flows
    https://www.amazon.com/Biological-M...39904953&sr=8-2&keywords=biological+membranes
    https://www.amazon.com/Geometry-Bio...5&sr=8-1&keywords=geometry+of+biological+time
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  14. Aug 18, 2015 #13

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2016 Award

    I disagree- in terms of pedagogical approaches, there are clear and profound differences between a biology class and a physics class. In terms of research, I agree that *the* scientific method can be fruitfully applied to all sciences.
     
  15. Aug 18, 2015 #14

    atyy

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    It is increasingly rare. Usually, even classical biology requires the natural numbers, eg. 2 eyes versus 3 eyes.

    There is also classical Mendelian genetics and population genetics, both of which are mathematical.
     
  16. Aug 18, 2015 #15

    atyy

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Well, I think a physics class can be just as entertaining as an introductory biology class. It is true that one gets to see pond skaters and cockroaches in biology, but I think there are many demonstrations in physics that are just as interesting.
     
  17. Aug 18, 2015 #16

    atyy

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Well, if there is any difference, maybe it is with p6 of the paper in the OP:

    "Perhaps the most fundamental of these is that there exists an objective physical reality for us to describe! On top of this we stack all manner of other assumptions: causality, locality, etc. I would wager that there are very few NSF grant proposals that begin with something like “Assuming that there is an objective physical reality, and that causality and locality are safe bets, we propose to study the synthesis of insulin in...” I don’t know if I would go to this level in my courses, either."

    That is the view in biology, and in many (attempted) interpretations of quantum mechanics. But would all physicists agree?

    Certainly, causality and locality are not safe bets in quantum mechanics, regardless of interpretation.
     
  18. Aug 18, 2015 #17

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2016 Award

    You do realize this is a silly thing to say, right?

    Never mind that constructs like "hard sphere gas" or "smooth, frictionless surface" simply have no analogy in biology.....
     
  19. Aug 18, 2015 #18

    atyy

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Hmm, no, I don't think it is silly. In what way do you think biology pedagogy is different from physics?

    If you're talking about idealizations, there are also idealizations in biology, eg. the concept of species or the integrate and fire neuron.
     
  20. Aug 19, 2015 #19

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2016 Award

    The second thing first- that is not analogous at all. In Physics, those conceptual devices (and many others), while idealizations, are in some sense a semi-rigorously defined limit; the limiting case is taken to reproduce the essential features which often account for >90% of the observed phenomenon. Physical models are more accurate the more abstraction is present; this is the opposite of biology- the details matter.

    Claiming 'species' as a meaningful idealization is specious.

    In terms of pedagogy, as I said there are clear differences in the curricula- in many biology classes, the emphasis is on memorizing a large set of names (gross anatomy), or signalling networks (cell physiology), or biochemical reactions (O-Chem), etc. and 'problem solving' means using logical reasoning to figure out which of the many possible choices is correct. In Physics, the emphasis is on memorizing a small number of rules and creatively applying them to many different phenomena. Physics problems are guided by an underlying theoretical construct; this is not the case for 'RNA World'. There is no 'theory of RNA' to learn.

    The central dogma of molecular biology is routinely violated- the protein sequence is insufficient to determine the function (protein folding is essential, and the structure/function relationship is not yet known). Post-translational modification of proteins by carbohydrates, lipids, and other groups results in non-genetically coded protein function. Proteins traffic back to the nucleus and stimulate or inhibit the transcription of other genes- the flow of information is a loop, not linear. By contrast, the law of conservation of energy is not violated under any condition. These essential differences force the pedagogy to differ.
     
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2015
  21. Aug 19, 2015 #20

    martinbn

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    My point precisely, two eyes versus three eyes.
     
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook




Similar Discussions: Differences in Teaching Phys Vs. Chem/Bio?
  1. Teaching resources (Replies: 4)

  2. Ineffective teaching (Replies: 50)

  3. Teaching Assistant? (Replies: 8)

  4. How to teach astronomy? (Replies: 11)

Loading...