A physicist, a mathematician and a biologist walk into a bar …

In a recent football conversation with my boyfriend, the question came up how much it cost to build the Emirates Stadium. I realised that I did not have the faintest idea. “I wish I was a physicist,” I said, “they are so good at putting numbers on things.”

It is true: I am not good at making numerical estimates, because I have not trained as a physicist. At university, what we learn is not a bundle of facts and numbers, but a way of thinking. And different disciplines have radically different ways of thinking. Physicists are good at understanding numbers and formulas, but sometimes tend to oversimplify things. Biologists have a feeling for complex interactions and emerging behaviours, but are, in general, less keen on numbers. Mathematicians are very good at recognising patterns, but are not too bothered with the details of the real world. And so on. We are all aware of this – after all, many of our science jokes rely on those differences. But it is astonishing how readily we accept this disciplinary divide, even if it works against us.

It often becomes a problem in interdisciplinary research groups, because our perceived differences in thinking lead to a perceived inability to talk to each other. But if there is only limited common ground, then work done within that common ground will be equally limited and might not be useful to any of the disciplines involved. Only by extending and deepening our common ground can we get to truly meaningful insights. And, more than anything else, this requires us to at least try to understand different ways of thinking.

How hard is this? After all, we have years of training and practice in thinking the way we do, and it profoundly affects how we see the world around us. As a biologist, I can tell you about the complex ecosystem that is a football stadium, and about the symbiotic relationships and regulatory circuits that keep it running on a day-to-day basis. As a mathematician, I can tell you that the stadium is, essentially, a doughnut. But how much it cost to build, I have no idea.

“Hang on”, said my boyfriend, “can’t we just figure it out?” So, we took ten minutes and thought it through. We started by estimating how many years it would take for the stadium to break even. Then we tried to work out how much money it makes in a year, using the number of games a year, the number of tickets sold for each game and the price of a typical ticket. Our final estimate was about 400 million pounds.

The number on the stadium website is 390 million. This is encouraging. Biologists of the world, unleash your inner physicist!

Also, happy St Totteringham’s Day!


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