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: