Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The laws of biology

The side effect of having spending so much time traveling these last months is that I have this stack of Nature and Science journals (I switched from the former to the latter a month ago to see the difference) which I am going through quite slowly.

In a Nature from the 7th of February there is an interesting essay about the clash of cultures between biologists and physicists working on biological topics written by a physicist from MIT (good to know where the bias will come from). Physicists have a long tradition of studying an (increasing) range of phenomena and producing theoretical models that characterise as many of those phenomena as possible. These are what are called the laws of physics. The question is if biology can have also models and laws that represent biological phenomena.

Although there are some (fairly generic and neat) biological laws (thing of Darwin's evolution and Mendel's genetics) most biologists seem to be more interested in fact collecting than in putting the available information in the form of theoretical models and universal laws of biology. The physicists (and mathematicians) coming to the field have not much knowledge in how the facts are collected (which it is easy to imagine as the source of many frustrations) but a deep interest in integrating those facts into models (especially when it involves using their favourite tools such as phase transitions, fractal analysis, power laws or networks). It remains to be seen if (in the view of the author) these general laws are possible at all and if (not my view but at least my question) the tools that were useful in physics will be that useful in biology (which does not mean they could at the very least, constitute a good starting point).