I got this diagram from Arjun Raj‘s Twitter feed, and I think I enjoy it a bit more every time I see it. Some of that is because it’s a big part of what I was trying to get across in this column, but I think that the sketch does a more thorough job of it in a shorter time.
It’s a painfully accurate depiction of how much we understand about a lot of important things in biology (I especially like the “flightosome”, which is exactly as descriptive as many names in the field, and gets across just as much useful information – that is, not much. The gel lanes are a nice touch, too.
This should recall the famous “Can A Biologist Fix a Radio” paper, as well as the attempts to both simulate the workings of the brain and to reverse engineer a computer chip using the molecular biology approach. I can come down two ways on this stuff. To engineers who impatiently ask how come we’re wasting all our time with this descriptive crap instead of understanding the principles involved, I invite them to come on down and show us how it’s done. The principles, it should be noted, are rather more complex and well-hidden than those found in aeronautics or electrical engineering. Those fields both have subtleties, for sure, but not like this. And from the other direction, when someone tries to tell me that this sort of descriptive bean-tallying is all we need, just a whole lot more of it and a lot faster, I find I’m not so receptive to that, either. Both “You fools need to think systematically” and “Systematic thinking is for fools” leave me cold. We need piles of facts, and we need insight. Unfortunately, gathering the first is not so easy, and the second is even harder.