Perspectives on theory at the interface of physics and biology


William Bialek has just posted on the arxiv a thoughtful piece exploring the role of theory in biology. He argues that theory has played a more important role in the development of biology than it is given credit for, and also that there is cause for optimism regarding the role that theory will play in the future. For example, he wrote “What is emerging from our community goes beyond the “application” of physics to the problems of biology. We are asking physicists’ questions about the phenomena of life, looking for the kinds of compelling answers that we expect in the traditional core of physics.” I also liked the introduction to Bialek’s Biophysics textbook, which explores some of the same issues.

One of the topics that Bialek addresses in the arxiv article is the explosion of parameters in biological models. I particularly appreciated his historical discussion of the Hodgkin-Huxley model of action potentials in neurons, and how progress can be made by analyzing the class of behaviors that can be achieved and to consider how the cell can adapt to remain in the proper regime. He summarizes his thoughts on the role of parameters with the following:


5 thoughts on “Perspectives on theory at the interface of physics and biology

  1. Jeremy Gunawardena has also written some fantastic essays on this subject, e.g. that we had a very sophisticated theory of genetics before we even discovered the genetic material.

    Theres on essay on particular that I recommend about the different roles that models play in biology that changed my whole approach early on in grad school. If I can find it I will post a link.


    1. Thanks Nikolai!

      The other essay I was talking about – “Models in biology: ‘accurate descriptions of our pathetic thinking”:

      In my early grad school studies, I studied a lot about model building and testing, but I didn’t think very much about **why** we build models, or how to choose the right level of abstraction.

      I think this point is the crux: “If the model cannot be falsified, it is not telling you anything” (Jeremy’s third point).


  2. I think it is also worth mentioning Rob Phillips recent opinion paper on the “different kinds of theory in Biology.”
    In this paper he goes to argue that there are two kind of theories in biology: 1) the one that comes on figure 7 of a cell paper where you try to make sense of all the data you collected via a simple mathematical model 2) and the one that comes in figure 1 that makes some precise quantitative predictions and the paper is dedicated to, in Popperian jargon, falsify or proof as correct.

    Thanks for sharing Jeff! I am a huge Bialek fan.


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