ASCB Newsletter Nov 2013 - page 4

4
ASCB
NEWSLETTER NOVEMBER 2013
The Higgs boson idea was
probably developed in
an ordinary office using
paper and pen (or chalk
and blackboard), with
computers being used later
to explore its complexities
and then much later to
work out the experimental
details. Essentially, the
experimentalists had
to catch up with the
theoretical physicists. With
the “proof ” of the Higgs
boson and the existence
of an instrument as
magnificent as the LHC,
perhaps it will next be
the theoretical scientists’
turn to catch up with the
experimental data.
As biologists know
very well, experiments
always spring surprises.
I see biology as more
mature than particle
physics on its experimental
side, chiefly because of
advances in cellular and
molecular biology. And yet cell biology is
rapidly becoming much more quantitative
and computational, especially in the area
now broadly defined as biophysics. Riding
the wave of molecular and cellular biology
we have gained incredible knowledge of the
mechanisms that are the basis of the cell, the
fundamental unit of life.
With this vast body of knowledge in our
hands, it is perhaps possible to meld together
an experimental and a theoretical approach
such that in the future biology may lean on
theory for problem solving. (For one example
of the successful interplay of experimental
and theoretical approaches, see the column by
Tom Rapoport and Mark Terasaki on p. 8.)
Such collaborative efforts in biophysics need to
overcome several barriers, given the different
approaches, lexicon, and training of physicists
and biologists. However, the capital that resides
with biologists in their ability to formulate
key questions about the function of the cell,
together with the theoretical and technical
capabilities that normally reside with physicists,
may unleash great potential for research and
innovation in the future.
Estimating the Benefits of Basic
Research
With the science policy side of my soul wide
awake during my visit to the LHC, I kept
a close eye on the politicians in the group.
Their eyes were wide open. Many of them
had been party to the discussions that led to
funding this massive project with no certain
outcome. Walking with the politicians, I
could sense their pride. A very big machine
used in a very big and very successful project
makes a strong political case for scientific
investment.
In bioscience, our trump card is the
clear social value of biomedical research.
Health is an issue much closer to home than
understanding what happened at the moment
of the Big Bang. Our science is certainly
easier to justify to governments if we can
point to the amazing returns on investment
generated by improved human health.
The experimental
part of the CERN
project came
long after the
theoretical.
The two counter-directional proton beams in the Large Hadron Collider meet
in a single pipe, visible here in its aluminum wrap, where the particles collide.
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