Why You Need Maths and Physics to Understand…Biology

Should you be scared by the overwhelming amount of numbers? Not really.

@University of Pretoria

I came across one of my favourite Youtubers, Andrew Dotson, discussing about how he changed majors from Biology to Physics during his undergraduate degree. He includes various examples of how exposure to physics and astronomy related media sparked interest in him and that it helped him make up his mind on his decision to switch. Here’s the video:

Aside from the fact that a PhD student in physics actually has the time to upload daily vlogs to his channel, his transition from biology to chemistry to physics might sound odd to many. I personally relate to his journey of trying new things and have recently came to the conclusion that I’m still a decent student in college is mostly thanks to my inner middle school years of hopping around different classes.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk, this was Anu.

Just kidding, I’ll try to explain why biology needs the others and why it’s a very bad idea to go into biology to avoid the plethora of numbers and signs.

If you had the impression that Biology was a good field to pursue after watching one of Sir David Attenborough’s commentaries on BBC, then good for you! (Do not be discouraged by the trolls around you, because elitism in science gets you nowhere and that’s a topic for another post.) The important thing is, after you discover an introductory material(e.g.: Cosmos) to a science you’ve never delved deep into, you’ll be inclined to discover more. This is where you need other sciences to explain the Biology of things, and you’ll be met with the following:

You: “How does this work?”

The Internet: “Here, have a 12-page-long paper on a formula you’ll never be able to decipher on your own!”

You: “Uhm, can I get a Dummies version of everything?”

The Internet: “Sure! Here, have an article with a comment count of 2 where both commenters say the material is too easy and possibly wrong!”

Don’t worry, it took me a month to figure out the data on a biosolar panel paper from SUNY and I got through it using my resources at hand. The bottom line is, science can be VERY discouraging to outsiders, because why even compete with all these braniacs around the world pursuing science as an actual career, eh? Well, no.

There is absolutely NOTHING WRONG with pursuing science as a side hobby, because you can always grab a pop science book at any corner store and start reading anywhere. Being interested in science will not only make a good conversation starter, it will help you understand how the world works and will improve your ability to organize different types of data.

Understanding the how and why of things will make your comprehension of the world much clearer, and who doesn’t like feeling like a little genius every now and then?

Weird cubes, huh?

Here comes the tricky part: In order to understand the data on a paper you just bought, you’ll have to have some basic knowledge of the said topic. Even if you learn of the said topic, ace all of your exams, this doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be successful in figuring out everything on the paper. Because you need a variety of classes/interests to help you out.

You need the following classes to help you understand a paper on bio-powered solar panels:

  • Statistics/Biostatistics
  • Mathematics(For undergrad, take Maths in both your freshmen and sophomore year for a leg-up)
  • Chemistry(Introductory inorganic chemistry classes are fine, but you need to be well-versed in organic chemistry and analytical/physical chemistry if you’re going into biochemistry)
  • Physics(If you’re into neurobiology, drug delivery and cool prosthetics)
Hey there!

My learning scheme/model goes like this:

  1. I come across a data I don’t understand ➤ I try to decipher it, again ➤ If I fail, I start googling the said chart type or names of columns ➤ If there’s anything I don’t understand from there, I go to a professor for help.

OR

2. I come across a subject I don’t understand ➤ I try to decipher it again after reading on said topic(going through a Schaum’s outline or a 1000-page book) ➤ “Oh, there it is, a sneaky formula” ➤???➤ “Oh, wait did I just figure it out?”➤ Proceeds to e-mail my professor about my unsuccessful attempt(My end goal) or give up completely…(not recommended!!!)

Look at this cool guy! They should have included him in Smash Bros Ultimate smh

The latter happens to many biology students in my class, and I can NOT STRESS how much they’re, well, stressed. It’s harder for them because they’re not bilingual (I live in Mongolia, look it up) and they usually can’t take the courses needed to aid them because the program usually forbids sophomores and freshmen to take advanced classes. Even with those cons out of the equation, there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we were taught science.

Biophysics ended for the semester a while ago, and I noticed a lot of my classmates struggled with preparing their solutions out of stock solutions. Chemistry taught in highschools are either very harsh or too slack, same goes for mathematics. Physics is a feared subject for many here, simply because the students don’t find it feasible or “they don’t need it.”

This is what happens if you don’t study your biophysics, kids!

I can’t say I didn’t struggle with topics like apoptosis(cell death) or microtubules(very simply put: the stretchy things in cells we can’t see) but my relatively strong background in science is the only thing setting me apart from the rest of my classmates. I’m not proud to admit that I’m the top of my class, only due to my curiosity and daily habit of studying/revising when needed. If only a few more people went and put in the effort to better themselves, it’d be a win for all.

“Is Math related to Science?” — Katy Perry, linguist and social architect

It’s very sad to see the comparison in day-to-day life, (especially in the Youtube comments section) of how they unconsciously make physics and maths essentially the hardest thing imaginable to beginners by casting the forbidden spell:

And what does this comparison accomplish? (Caption not mine)

The notion of setting apart physics from chemistry, biology from maths make people think that the 4(or 5?, LOL) branches of science are devoid of any contact, like 4 sandwiches in Ziploc bags in space, just floating in their own directions… But in reality, science is a truck sized sandwich with so many things to eat, and it’s what you make of it. Ever heard of astrobiologists? They just took the bun and the hotdog from that pile of goodies and made themselves a hotdog. Underrated but very important in the future.

Potatoes on Mars FTW!!!

In conclusion, don’t be afraid to pursue science just because the maths is discouraging. You’ve got the internet to help you out. We have future scientists who are like that as well, we’re still figuring out our own stuff and you’re not alone. So go and build your own sandwich/hotdog/panini from the motherlode of resources and Godspeed!

Update: Thank you very much, PNAS!

I write.