On Interdisciplinary Cooperating Principles

In his autobiography, Richard Feynman tells his experience in the lab of Watson and Crick during his professorship in Caltech. He guested in the lab and performed a series of experiments on DNA —— it is quite reasonable for someone like Feynman to try something out of his field, and indeed he had some fruits working in a biochemistry lab. As a physicist, Feynman would finally go back into the world of physics, while this interesting story could be a good reference of our discussion on interdisciplinary studies, such as the role of a physicist bumping into an ecology group and what can he learn from ecology. As a generalization, I hope to get some principles about interdisciplinary studies.

While my work is mainly on writing computational codes for simulation of land models, It takes little intelligence to fulfil these coding works. The creative part behind scientific computing lies in designing the algorithm in order to realize a scientific model, and on the other hand, improving the performance and accuracy using mathematical and arithmetic techniques. Therefore, simple codes may have advantages over complicated programs, which leads to unnecessary redundant components to the problem.

During the process of building and calculating models for realistic problems, mathematical tools are of course important. However, the selection of mathematical tools for a specific problem requires some concrete theories or models. Starting from their knowledge, ecologists can build the theory to predict the system’s behaviors, either by data analyzing or first principles; physicists, however, will first turn the problem into a set of abstract equations, hoping to link the ecology problem to simple models in physics or construct a framework for the theory with the common points between them.

Sounds good?

Well, although physicists always appear to be working elegantly with their simple and powerful theories, they usually turn out to be unable to keep their hands clean when going deeper into practical parts. Transferring the models in physics to other fields must be performed with a solid correspondence between the two systems. When checking the correspondence of the two sides carefully, there comes a painful part of cooperation: the mathematicians or physicists hold little knowledge on the very ecological problem, let alone thinking as an ecologist; their collaborators, at the same time, are also having a bad time finding the physical prototype of their models in ecology – such division becomes troublesome when working on major projects. On the physics side, they are trying to test the principles of the theory but have nothing; while the ecologists have many ecology theories but are struggling to glue them up.

That’s what I found to be difficult: the concrete and abstract parts of the same problem do not easily understand each other. For example, I was quite confused listening to the discussion on hydrodynamics and cost/gain: I do not know how to link them together!

In this content, ecology students with good maths/physics skills may have the advantage: since abstract models are simple, they can use them as building blocks of new theories. Similar parts between different systems, although may be apparent, are potentially heuristic; if there are supporting mechanics under the similarity, it may further indicate the inner relationship between different scientific areas and enhance the study of ecology models. At this level to “borrow” the maths/physics, there is no need for a student of these majors: they may prefer doing the general things and overlook the ecology.

Of course, the perspective of physics and ecology are not mutually exclusive. It would be great to have them running simultaneously in one’s mind, but with the trend of specialization suggests that one does not need to have skills on all the fields, but to better communicate with collaborators and focus on their own parts.

Good cooperation must be based on mutual understanding of ecologists and physicists. To overcome the obstacle of physics/mathematics, it is helpful to first consider some simple case studies: with a specific case, physicists now have a picture to explain their equation in the language of ecology, while the ecologists are also able to put their models into application and see how it interacts with the whole theory. A good case can also help others to understand their creation: following the simple case, one can hand on a basic technical flow of the new theoretical tool. I realized the importance of tutorial cases not only from the overlap of physics and ecology but also when trying to figure out how advanced mathematical tools are applied in physics. Facing those awkward words like tensor category/isomorphic…, I somehow recognized the feeling of my collaborators when trying to understand statistical physics. In such a situation, we need a set of “interim” languages or cases between the two subjects to serve as a bridge.

Having such a translation system established, it is possible to learn from each other. We always expect models in physics to apply in ecology, but what could physicists learn in such cooperation? Despite the funding things, a good and stable interdisciplinary cooperating mechanism should not be just using physics to solve ecological problems—— like romantic relationships, an ideal interdisciplinary study project is expected to enlarge the territory of both subjects.

The question is, how to achieve this?

Many people regard theoretical physics as something “higher”, which can hardly borrow ideas from other fields. However, as my personal experience, being good at physics provides no knowledge of ecology, and it is definitely wrong to sort these subjects by their mathematical tools.

What can we learn from the study? As “interdisciplinary” indicates, the probability to use one’s familiar skills in a stranger field is attractive, and organizing the principles may also be a good practice. Some physicists may not be satisfied by this answer, and they may ask “is there something of nontrivial physics in ecology?”.

Well, I have to say: maybe. Without a thorough study, I have no idea on the physics under ecology, but I would suggest digging in this field. Evolution and adaption in ecosystems are interesting for the study of statistical physics of interacting systems, both for equilibrium and non-equilibrium cases. With the picture provided by ecology, physicists may think of some abstract models to describe them and may harvest some new physics playing with the models. One more potential inspiration from ecology is, will the pattern formed by the evolution of plants give us any idea on solving similar problems in physics —— do we learn from nature here.


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