This paper from Janelia Farm is fucking so cool and nearly flawless to me simply because I can’t understand most part of it.
They are studying transcription factor dynamics and mechanisms of chromatin binding and motif searching. Their raw data were acquired with extremely sophisticated (to me) and state-of-art microscopies. Their conclusions were derived from those raw data based on a series of complicated (to me) mathematical modeling and algorithms.
As my own research also involves molecule tracking and interaction in real time, I’d always dreamed of having one of those multi-focus microscopies they have and it is beyond a dream for me to have someone, applying rigorous computations, to figure out what’s going on in all the movies I’ve captured.
Looking at this work, I’ve never been so perplexed with the vortex of biomedical research that I and many others fall in. On one hand, we have these most careful nature observers who have the very detailed and amazing description of physiology, anatomy, development and disease; On the other hand, we also have these incredible mathematicians, physicists and engineers who take a completely different, very rational and theoretical route to uncover mysteries of biology.
And these two camps seem never be able to reconcile with each other, just like Catholics and Judeo-Christians can’t. I myself fall into the first camp, so I love the way I interact with biology. It’s like telling a story, fitting pieces and pieces together———in a logical manner, but not necessarily stringent, because I believe it’s just totally absurd to seek for absolute accuracy in biology. It loses all the beauty and drama of the nature we study.
But at the same time I’m fully aware of all the ugly bits from this angle of the approach: cherry-picking data, ascertainment bias, ill-designed statistics, and so on and so on. We are too into the little details and forget the general principles; and we are so obsessed with the nature in our eyes in a descriptive way that we couldn’t extract the skeletons and metaphysics of it. This is where the other camp come in. These abstract, cold-blooded mathematicians and computationists. They don’t see colors, they see patterns; they don’t see interactions, they see models; they don’t care about complexities and crosstalks, they care about generalizations and modularities.
That’s why I’m so afraid of them. They have incredible ability to develop new tools and techniques that revolutionize the field. Everything we do is absolutely dependent on their support. They have amazing mind to extract general principles out of messy, daunting experiments. I’m afraid of being useless because I’m not smarter than them and I can’t compete with the robots and software they devise.
As a matter of fact, I’m in a deep deep fear. I genuinely think biological research will be taken over by mathematicians and computer scientists, and the field of biology will become mere applications of physics and engineering.
I don’t know what to do. It’s too late for me to washout my brain to something I never used to and never liked.
My scientific belief has collapsed in front of codes and equations. I don’t see a future of myself.