I’m a Biologist, and I Like Maths!
The Rise of Quantitative Biology
When you ask people who aren’t familiar with science - and even some of those that are - how they picture a biologist, the majority of the answers are invariably something to do with someone in a lab coat hunched over a microscope peering at a plant stem or insect leg. While there are biologists that do this - and do it very well - today’s challenges and advances in technology have bred an entirely new breed of biologist: Ones that don’t consider biology a “soft science” at all.
Over the past 10-20 years, biology has become increasingly quantitative, and the mathematical sciences have been increasingly influenced by biology. This increased understanding and importance we place on the molecular underpinnings of life have caused some to herald mathematics as “biology’s next microscope, only better” (Cohen, J.E., PloS Biology, 2004); it is expected mathematical, statistical, and computational sciences will continue to reveal unsuspected and entirely new worlds within biology, just as the microscope revealed previously unseen worlds following its invention. Conversely, biology’s ability to revoluntionise mathematics has led to it being labeled “mathematics’ next physics, only better.” Biology, in its own right, will in turn continue to spur major new developments in computation, mathematics and statistics, just as physics has done in past centuries.
This revolutionary partnership - now, by most definitions, more of a committed, long-term relationship - goes by a variety of names: Quantitative biology, computational biology, biophysics, mathematical biology, systems biology. Whatever the name you give it, it’s become an integral part of the life sciences. Biology is no longer the “science for those that don’t like maths”, the “science for people who couldn’t do physics”, or the “science of memorising things about plants and animals”; it’s a first-class quantitative science, and people should start seeing it like one.
Image: Different postulated structures of celastrol, a potent anti-inflammatory drug.