A Mix in the Sciences 10/18/19

Science Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Today, I was at a park with a friend of mine. We started looking at some of the plants in the park, and she said to me that she doesn’t understand the difference between the sciences. “So what makes this ‘biology’?” she asked.

“It’s not,” I replied, “it’s chemistry.”

“Chemistry?”

“No,” I said, “wait…it’s physics.”

“Physics?”

“Mathematics.”

When I finally woke up again, our conversation resumed.

Okay, it’s biology. I think everybody can see this. Biology is the study of living organisms. Biologists can classify it as a plant, can tell you the type of plant, and all kinds of things about it. The biologists may have started with macrosopic studies (and there are still macroscopic studies like zoology and agronomy), but they have become interested in smaller and smaller microscopic structures. Today they can tell you about cells, their components right down to the chloroplasts where photosynthesis takes place. The plant is biology.

Me? I’m a chemist. I’m interested in the compounds that make up the proteins, cell membranes, cell walls (yes, they are two different things), DNA, RNA, the molecules and chemical reactions involved in the plant. I’m not so interested in the chloroplast (actually, I, personally am but not so much as a chemist), but I am very interested in the chlorophyll molecule, and the chemical reactions involved of reacting carbon dioxide with water to produce sugar and water. Without this reaction, the plant could not survive, and neither could we. In larger organism, metabolism is the set of reactions of breaking sugars and food down into basic building blocks for our molecules like proteins, and catabolism is the set of chemical reactions that use these building blocks to build up larger molecules necessary for surviving. Photosynthesis is the reaction to produce sugar from carbon dioxide and water through the action of the chlorophyll. The plant is chemistry.

Of course, without light, none of this can happen. Light is a form of energy, and energy is the realm of physics. A physicist can tell you how much energy is in light based on the wavelengths of light absorbed, the structure of the photons making up the light, and even the subatomic electronic behaviors that allow for the absorption of this energy and how the chlorophyll uses it to take lower energy molecules like carbon dioxide and water to form high energy sugars, which, by the way, is impossible without some external form of energy. Yes, the plant is physics.

And all of this occurs, believe it or not, according to mathematical formulations, some of which we know, and more of which we have the mathematical foundation to figure out, but believe me, there are far more such formulations that we don’t even have the foundations to begin to understand. The plant falls into the mathematical realms of geometry, calculus, differential equations and so much more. Yes, the plant is also mathematics.

The reality is that we, as human beings, separate out the sciences based on our own personal interests, and to be able to understand. Our lives are too short, and our mental capacities far too small to be able to comprehend the incredible complexities of the myriad of mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and so many other principles to know it all. But, God doesn’t have to segregate these principles and laws.

God, or nature if you prefer, works with all of these disciplines all at the exact same time. At one point I had a colleague who happened to be a biologist, who told me, honestly, that no other sciences were necessary because they were all wrapped up in biology, and they taught their students all science in their biology courses. This is not only incredibly arrogant, but shows a distinct lack of appreciation of the time and effort scientists of various disciplines put into their field of study, and a complete lack of understanding of how the sciences all interconnect and work together. At this same institution, another biology professor would periodically ask me to explain certain concepts in chemistry so she can be sure that she has them correct when presenting them to her class. She would make statements about how she appreciated me as an expert in my field, and my love for how the sciences worked together. I truly enjoyed working with her.

I’ve often likened the various scientific disciplines to a tree. The soil would be mathematics in which all of the sciences are firmly planted. Math is the language of science. The roots would be physics. Physics is the study of energy, and without energy, there would be nothing else. Einstein, in fact, demonstrated the mathematical relationship between mater and energy in his famous equation. Chemistry would be the trunk. Chemistry is the study of matter, which encompasses everything in our experience with the exception of pure energy. Because everything is made of matter, all other disciplines are the branches of the tree, all related to chemistry. Ironically, the further away you get from the roots, the further you also get from mathematics. Physics is the scientific discipline that his heaviest in mathematics, followed by chemistry. Most other sciences have less math than even chemistry, but…they are all related, intertwined, and depend on each other.

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