Intuition, in Physicists and Biologists

Physicists thrive on generalizations. Biologists live in details. Physicists love simple models. Their training develops an intuition for separating what is essential from what is inessential and may be safely ignored. Biologists are uncomfortable with these pared down models. They are trained to appreciate and retain the wealth of subtle differences that comprise the diversity of life and its components. When they do adopt ideas from physics, models become protocols, rarely changed or reexamined.

Thus goes the physicist’s side of the story, as I have heard it and echoed it. But what about the biologist’s side? Professor Robijn Bruinsma offered one this morning over breakfast. Biologists draw their intuition from evolution. For example, to get a feeling for the form and function of a protein, they consider its evolutionary relatives.

If a physicist wants to know what you’ll do tomorrow, he’ll sit you down and ask you many questions. If a biologist wants to know your what you’ll do tomorrow, he’ll find out what you did yesterday and the day before, and he’ll go around asking your friends about their plans. It’s not a perfect strategy, but it usually works.