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Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences
by a small number of fundamental laws. They seek to understand how small bits of matter—atoms and molecules—are internally composed, and how they absorb and transmit energy and react with each other.
In contrast, the life sciences seek to understand a natural world that is multifaceted—perhaps even messy—and almost never in the steady state. Whereas fundamental laws drive the physical sciences, diversity and complexity are the key characteristics of the life sciences. This latter world begins at the smallest scales, with the biomolecules of which all living matter is made, and then extends to cells, tissues, and organs, to complete organisms, and then to their interactions with each other and with their environments, first on a local level and then globally. Biologists have traditionally pursued their studies without feeling the need to trace the complexities of those systems to the atomic and subatomic levels, although molecular approaches by now have assumed an enormous influence on most fields of biology.
While the distinctions between disciplines are traditional, they are fast becoming less applicable as science crosses the boundaries that once existed. Are efforts to understand biomolecules, the smallest of biological constructions, a facet of chemistry or biology? Are attempts to understand the environmental effects of greenhouse gases a concern of physical science or of biology? It is becoming increasingly irrelevant whether a particular research topic fits neatly into one discipline or another; in fact, many of the most interesting scientific questions and pressing societal issues will require the collective expertise from multiple fields. These areas of overlap are the focus of this report, where the events being studied cannot unambiguously be described as solely contained within the life or physical sciences.
How, then, to best describe the science of the intersection in terms that may be familiar to those working within the constituent fields? Physical scientists might describe it as a composite, a combination of materials (in this case, concepts, tools, and worldviews) with significantly different properties that, when combined, produce something neither could provide separately. Life scientists might describe it as a hybrid, an attempt to produce something new and different through the cross-breeding of ideas and techniques. All would say these intersectional areas of research require expertise and training outside the traditional scope of their disciplines, resulting in new ways of addressing existing problems or new approaches to emerging topics of study. Along with the novelty, though, comes the possibility of frustrations from falling outside the norm of either canonical discipline, such as difficulties in obtaining funding, finding an academic home, or earning tenure.
This report explores both the promises and obstacles associated with research at the intersection of the life and physical sciences. Chapters 2 and 3 examine, in broad terms, the potential opportunities arising from such research for both scientific communities and society in general. Some of the most promising scientific gains at this intersection are explored in Chapter 2, in the form of five Grand