Feynman: What Biology Needs is Not More Math, But to See Better at the Atomic Level

A very bright, and very mathematically competent, fellow, grants that math is not the source of all knowledge.  So is economics more like physics, or more like biology? 

 

(p. 124)  We have friends in other fields–in biology, for instance.  We physicists often look at them and say, "You know the reason you fellows are making so little progress?"  (Actually I don’t know any field where they are making more rapid progress than they are in biology today.)  "You should use more mathematics, like we do."  They could answer us–but they’re so polite, so I’ll answer for them:  "What you should do in order for us to make more rapid progress is to make the electron microscope 100 times better."

What are the most central and fundamental problems of biology today?  They are questions like:  What is the sequence of bases in the DNA?  What happens when you have a mutation?  How is the base order in the DNA connected to the order of amino acids in the protein?  What is the structure of the RNA:  is it a single-chain or double-chain, and how is it related in its order of bases to the DNA?  What is (p. 125) the organization of the microsomes?  How are proteins synthesized?  Where does the RNA go?  How does it sit?  Where do the proteins sit?  Where do the amino acids go in?  In photosynthesis, where is the chlorophyll; how is it arranged; where are the carotenoids involved in this thing?  What is the system of the conversion of light into chemical energy?

It is very easy to answer many of these fundamental biological questions; you just look at the thing!  You will see the order of bases in the chain; you will see the structure of the microsome.  Unfortunately, the present microscope sees at a scale which is just a bit too crude.  Make the microscope one hundred times more powerful, and many problems of biology would be made very much easier.  I exaggerate, of course, but the biologists would surely be very thankful to you–and they would prefer that to the criticism that they should use more mathematics.

 

Source:

Feynman, Richard P.  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman.  New York:  Perseus Books, 1999.

 

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