Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Speakers in Step conference

It has been a while since I came back from the Step conference in Brussels and I guess it is time to say something about some of the speakers I had the chance of listening to. Probably the most interesting ones from my highly subjective point of view were James Bassingthwaighte (University of Washington), Brian Goodwin (former Santa Fe Institute Faculty, now at Schumacher College) and Denis Noble (Oxford).

This Step conference was not meant to be about science per se so the talks were definitely not of a technical nature. James introduced the Physiome project which, as you might know, is about putting together all the current and future knowledge about the human phisiology with
the aim of improving health care. The ideal result would be a giant simulation of the human phisiology that could behave like a real whole organism. Such system would allow physicians and other researchers to test therapies quickly and without nasty side effects
and study 'what if' scenarios.What James thinks we need are:

* Training (No use of sophisticated systems if physicians don't use them)
* Databasing
* Standards (Too many groups out there and no way to compare or integrate their work)
* Modelling archives (I got a nice model, where do I put it for other people to play with?)
* Modelling tools

All in all a nice and light introductory talk. Everything he mentioned is quite reasonable although I am not sure if it is realistic to expect any of these things happening in the short term. People so far seem to be happy happy to come with their own models and not much effort is done to see if the results of one model are consistent with the results of the model of a different group.

Next talk came from Brian Goodwin who, although use to be in the Santa Fe Institute is know a professor of 'holistic science' (which looks quite a scary name for a professorship). The theme of his talk? Computational biology: a clash of cultures. The part of the talk which I found more interesting was when he dealt with the ambiguity of languages. Human languages are ambiguous and the meaning of a sentence gets shaped as we speak. This seems to be a good analogy to understand the language of genes which is also ambiguous (which is nice if you want to evolve it). In his view both human and gene languages have the property that are the best compromise between the effort that the speaker has to make to convey a message and the
effort of the listener. This is an interesting idea although I guess that proving it might be quite complicated (note to my self, should take a look at what has been published about this).

The talk from Denis Noble was also interesting despite the fact that his major point was: I have a new book ("The music of life") go and buy it (which I might do). He made a number of points:

1. There is no gene for function (no objections to that)
2. Transmission of information is not just one way (same here)
3. DNA is not the only transmitter of inheritance (heard that before)
4. Law of relativity in biology: there is no privileged level of causality. Message to Dawkins: the gene is not that important.
5. There is no genetic programme (message to Monod this time).
6. Actually there are no programmes at any level
7. ...and that means not even at the brain level

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