Hopfield on the difference between physics and biology

Here is a short essay by theoretical physicist John Hopfield of the Hopfield net and kinetic proofreading fame among many other things (hat tip to Steve Hsu). I think much of the hostility of biologists towards physicists and mathematicians that Hopfield talks about have dissipated over the past 40 years, especially amongst the younger set. In fact these days, a good share of Cell, Science, and Nature papers have some computational or mathematical component. However, the trend is towards brute force big data type analysis rather than the simple elegant conceptual advances that Hopfield was famous for. In the essay, Hopfield gives several anecdotes and summarizes them with pithy words of advice. The one that everyone should really heed and one I try to always follow is “Do your best to make falsifiable predictions. They are the distinction between physics and ‘Just So Stories.’”


2 thoughts on “Hopfield on the difference between physics and biology

  1. i came across hopfield in a scientific american fairly general article i think in the 80’s or 90’s—-my parents had a subscription but i never read it until later—all the way back to 60’s (martin gardner’s math games–classic stuff). it was direclty on my line of thinking—potential surfaces , a much more current view of neural nets than even anderson and leon cooper (both at brown u)–sortuh ising/spin glass stuff. i was asked or talking with some economics professors about implementing their idea of a decentralized economy so i suggested they look at this paper and also brian arthur (SFI, stanford) on path dependence, neural nets, genetic algorihtms.

    they explained to me that while they didnt really know any math, or how to do any c programming, or even economics, despite tenure, they knew what i had to do—some sort of 40’s linear programming —if i was going to volunteer doing that for them (never heard of donald saari)–they couldn’t pay of course, since they had conferences to go to— and also they explained to me those papers didnt make any sense.

    these were ‘socialists’ or ‘anarchists’ associated with AU and one went to MIT (see parecon or participatory economics, z magazine,noam chimpsky, the friendly face of facism). . they did find a chinese grad student to do it at au—but its not published. he got a job at hsu’s place n mchigan. immigrants are smart and hard working and will do anything like donald trump.


  2. I found his final advice confusing: “Own the right gin joint.” Seems like he was the one who walked into someone else’s gin joint. So I don’t understand if he was referring to himself or instead to Francis O. Schmidt who invited him to give a talk.


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