Most recently, Barabási’s research is focusing on regulatory networks within the cell, building on his previous collaborations with Zoltán Oltvai of Northwestern University in Chicago. He is moving away, he explains, from a “single gene approach”, and addressing theoretical and conceptual problems rather than experimental ones. A particular current focus of his work is the study of protein interaction networks using huge gene chip data sets. In addition to his work on protein interaction networks, which he is pursuing this year during a sabbatical at the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston, Barabási is working on a more theoretical problem, that of the role of timing in network dynamics. How does one think, he asks, about a network containing timing, and vice versa? He is also continuing to explore an interest in scaling phenomena in social networks – his group’s most recent paper was a study of the correspondence patterns of Darwin and Einstein (Nature 437
PHYSICIST that he is both a “big critic and a big fan” of current interdisciplinary trends. He worries that neither granting agencies nor
universities are interdisciplinarity.
embracing They are
multidisciplinary work instead. The idea of “let’s get together to solve problem x” is misguided. Instead, he says, we must foster the development of new questions, both sides meeting to move together in a new direction.
Physicists can’t answer a biologist’s question, nor can a biologist answer a physicist’s question. We must meet halfway in questions of mutual interest.” It is critical, he says, for physicists to work with, and talk to, biologists. They want to talk to us, he says, but sometimes physicists can be too arrogant to listen. What is needed, he adds, is humility. It takes humility to listen, but this is essential.
Another problem with interdisciplinary research, Barabási says, is the issue of credit. Who takes credit for a given project, or piece of a project, can be critical in the high-pressure world of tenure-driven academia. Funding agencies talk about interdisciplinarity, but there are few mechanisms for a grant to have two Principal Investigators. This is an example, he says, of a systemic problem which is slowly beginning to be fixed by bottom-up
changing – the agencies are finally starting to put their money where their mouth is.
As for parsing the names of various interdisciplinary fields, such as the debate over the definition of “biological physics” versus “biophysics”, Barabasi calls this “solipsistic nonsense. If you want to argue over this, be
my guest. What matters,
and what you are