Glad to see Berkeley and Harvard finally caught up. A few biology departments recognized 15 or more years ago that many of the most interesting questions in biology were at the interface of the organism and how it works at the cell and molecular levels. These departments deliberately brought together faculty that cut across levels of inquiry (field to gene expression) that sparked fruitful collaborations in tackling fundamental questions. For example, not just describing how populations of a species in different environments are diverging, but then looking at the changes in gene expression that are driving those changes. Rather than splitting the environmental/ evolution biologists away from the cell and molecular biologists, as many universities did in the 90’s, these departments recognized many of the most interesting cell and molecular questions are cast in the context of the organism and vice versa. One example of that has been the incredible insights driven by sequencing thousands of genomes both from within a given species and between them.
It’s exciting to be witnessing the resurgence of natural history. Several years ago I participated in a series of workshops of the Natural History Initiative, titled “Natural History: From Decline to Rebirth,” associated with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. (A workshop report is available at http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/08/16/rsbl.2011.0777.) This work is continued by the Natural History Network (http://naturalhistorynetwork.org) and its associated journal. Thanks for spreading the word about natural history, Don!
This is a very welcome development. Ultimately research and teaching agendas are set by funders, and funders prefer laboratory science; first because it promises cash returns on investment, second because projects that work under controlled conditions can be planned as meticulously as the most rigid of bureaucrats requires, and third because it looks like real work. Whole organisms, especially wild ones are unsettlingly unpredictable to those who live in a world of Gannt charts, scheduled cash flows, and predicted outcomes.
The structure of DNA was discovered at the Cavendish – Rutherford’s old lab – about 15 years after his death. From people who knew him, and who taught me, he would have been fascinated by these advances, much of them dependent on crystallography and model-building to short-cut across the difficult bits.
Physics makes use of the fact that all the bits are identical … every electron in the universe is the same and obeys the same rules. In contrast every bacterium is unique and us, who moved into the -ologies, are still striving to formulate the equivalent of the laws of thermodynamics … and would they be useful anyway?
I believe the quotation about stamp collecting is from Lord Rutherford, who was not disdainful of natural history, merely any field outside of physics that called itself science. According to him there was physics and the rest was stamp collecting. Rutherford didn’t live to see DNA’s structure discovered by Watson, but it’s likely he would have lumped Watson’s molecular biology into stamp collecting, too.
These “ologies” are NOT easy disciplines! People need some basic knowledge here in order to vote intelligently.
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