Physicists at the Gate: Collaboration and Tribalism in Science

Veronique Greenwood in UnDark:

ScreenHunter_1823 Mar. 30 22.34Did you know that most animal species have roughly the same number of heartbeats over the course of their lives? Short-lived creatures’ hearts beat faster, using up their allotment more quickly — mice before humans, humans before elephants — and this universal quality may be the result of the fact that all of our bodies depend on networks of vessels with similar physics. Did you know that as cities grow, the rate of business transactions grows faster than their population, while the number of miles of roads grows slower? Or that building a network of mysterious genes could help reveal the history of malaria?

All of these findings and more have been made in recent years by researchers reaching across the boundaries of their scientific fields. They are the focus of physicists collaborating with biologists, archaeologists, sociologists, and others, forming teams to look for questions to answer and new ways to describe the world. “Physics is not conceptually super-interesting anymore, not as interesting as biology and evolution and all things social — at least for me,” says Luis Bettencourt, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who once studied the origins of the universe and now studies the growth of cities.

In many cases, these new collaborations have been fueled by an explosion of data pouring in from DNA sequencing, cellphone records and other sources, filled with latent patterns that could reveal more about the systems that created them. “It’s an opportunity for people that are fluent with dealing with data, and modeling data” — in other words, certain kinds of physicists — “to come in and say something,” Bettencourt says.

But as physicists sink their teeth into the data, many are finding that entering another field is not simple. As Bettencourt puts it: “Physicists come at it and say, ‘What’s wrong with these people, biologists and social scientists? There’s all this data … Why don’t you just look at the data and see what it tells you about these systems?’

More here.