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.