Approximations, idealizations and 'experiments' at the physics-biology interface

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


This paper, which is based on recent empirical research at the University of Leeds, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Bristol, presents two difficulties which arise when condensed matter physicists interact with molecular biologists: (1) the former use models which appear to be too coarse-grained, approximate and/or idealized to serve a useful scientific purpose to the latter; and (2) the latter have a rather narrower view of what counts as an experiment, particularly when it comes to computer simulations, than the former. It argues that these findings are related; that computer simulations are considered to be undeserving of experimental status, by molecular biologists, precisely because of the idealizations and approximations that they involve. The complexity of biological systems is a key factor. The paper concludes by critically examining whether the new research programme of ‘systems biology’ offers a genuine alternative to the modelling strategies used by physicists. It argues that it does not.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)145-154
Number of pages10
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Complexity
  • Condensed matter physics
  • Models
  • Molecular biology
  • Physics-biology interface
  • Simulations
  • Systems biology


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