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Undisciplined Science

Brian Hayes

Physics Outside Physics

Will the current round of interdepartmental incursions or cross-fertilizations create new disciplines comparable to astrophysics or molecular biology? There may well be enough intellectual content for such new departments, but as yet there are few signs of the concomitant institutional changes. I have not heard of any university creating a Department of Sociology and Sociophysics.

A year ago, an international symposium held in Poland confronted the theme of "Statistical Physics Outside Physics." In an introductory talk (published, along with the rest of the proceedings, in the journal Physica A), Dietrich Stauffer of Cologne University asks what sort of welcome physicists ought to expect when they venture into economics, sociology or biology. Stauffer himself has done distinguished work in all three fields, and so the answers come from direct personal experience. And yet the question itself seems to me premature. If the work that physicists do "outside physics" is still labeled as physics—and in particular if it is still published in physics journals—then physicists may get no welcome at all. Not all sociologists, economists and biologists are readers of Physical Review E or Physica A.

The conference proceedings also include a paper by a sociologist, Barbara Pabjan of Wroclaw University, that is not exactly a warm embrace of the visiting physicists. It's understandable that social scientists are testy on this point. Their field, like a company with weak quarterly earnings, has been a constant takeover target. Even the biologists once made a bid, in the "socio-biology" movement of the 1970s.

Another newly emerging subdiscipline, bio-informatics, provides an interesting contrast. The subject matter here is the quantitative analysis  of biological data, most notably billions of base pairs of DNA sequences. The field has brought together biologists with mathematicians and computer scientists, apparently to the satisfaction of both parties. The introductory talks at bioinformatics conferences tend to focus less on friction or tension between disciplines and more on cooperation and collaboration. As far as I can tell, biologists do not worry that nerdy interlopers will poach all the best results, and mathematicians do not feel they are being exploited like some sort of outsourced tech-support hotline. Problems such as identifying genes and calculating the evolutionary distance between species are perceived as being both biologically significant and mathematically engaging. 

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