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Math Medicine

Maths Becomes Biology's Magic Number (bbc.com) 75

In the middle of a discussion about the pros and cons of statins, Sir Rory Collins, the head of clinical trials at Oxford University, noted that If you want a career in medicine these days you're better off studying mathematics or computing than biology. A report on BBC adds: It is a nice one-liner, but I didn't think much more about it until a few days later, when I found myself sitting in a press conference to mark the launch of a new initiative on cancer. Rubbing shoulders on the panel with the director of the Institute of Cancer Research, Professor Paul Workman, was a scientist I didn't recognise, but it soon became clear this was exactly what Sir Rory had had in mind. Dr Andrea Sottoriva is an astrophysicist. He has spent much of his career searching for Neutrinos -- the elusive sub-atomic particles created by the fusion of elements in stars like our sun -- at the bottom of the ocean, and analysing the results of atom smashing experiments with the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Geneva. "My background is in computer science, particularly as it applies to particle physics," he told me when we met at the ICR's laboratories in Sutton. So why cancer? The answer can be summed up in two words: big data. What Dr Sottoriva brings to the fight against cancer is the expertise in mathematical modelling needed to mine the vast treasure trove of data the information revolution has brought to medicine. "The exciting thing is that we can apply all the new analytical techniques we've developed in physics to biology," he says. "So we have all these new quantitative technologies that allow us to process an enormous amount of data, and all of a sudden we can start to apply that to implement the paradigm of physics in biology."
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Maths Becomes Biology's Magic Number

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Son, let me give you a tip... data science.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    You'll never end up being the guy designing the experiments or a CSO if you learn math/comp sci instead of biology. You may be hired by those guys to do some work, but that's about it.

  • by Bing Tsher E ( 943915 ) on Saturday October 15, 2016 @07:03PM (#53083043) Journal

    Clobbering reality with statistics is what you do when you don't have a theory to work with.

    It's kind of un-scientific, but it puts all that equipment to 'good use.'

    • by methano ( 519830 )
      This guy shouldn't be modded down. This is the first intelligent comment on this article that I've come across so far. This computation cure for cancer crap is just that, crap.
      • by LostMyBeaver ( 1226054 ) on Saturday October 15, 2016 @10:59PM (#53083743)
        I think the mistake we often tend to make is to believe that it is either one side or the other. Computing a cure for cancer is very likely a hopeless approach. On the other hand if we can at some point understand enough about DNA to identify cancerous anomalies and target them through custom tailored retroviruses or nano-tech, I figure... sure why not?

        That said, I have been "volunteering" from time to time at a university's biochem department with regards to code optimization. I do this in exchange for lab access so I can learn learn a little about biochemistry. At this point what I've learned is that we really don't know anything at all about biochemistry and instead of focusing all our attention into developing tools that could maybe allow us to actually learn about it, we prefer these insane studies of protein folding an such.

        I don't necessarily agree with the original article or how it was written in such a way to sensationalize instead of inform. I think the whole Plato/Socrates conversational thing is entertaining a times, but has very little value outside of philosophy and Hollywood. I do however agree with the sentiment suggesting that there is great value in getting an education that would allow you to make valuable contributions to the study of medicine by taking a less traditional approach.

        Of course, I could just be speaking out of the side of my own ass. I like the idea of making improvements to scanning tunneling technology to possibly allow full mapping of a human cell. Then focusing on observing all the molecular interactions that explain the purpose of each part of the cell. Biology labs are almost always completely full of pretty white equipment that looks really really expensive. They even have fancy looking centrifuges.... which is a machine which spins stuff.... around in circles... and it probably cost more than my car (a BMW i3). If I as a computer nerd needed such a thing, I would get a power supply, a mosfet, a motor, an arduino and maybe an IR transmitter/receiver for good luck. Total cost... $100. Biology labs should be located in the same building as machine shops and electronic and mechanical engineers.
    • by xtsigs ( 2236840 )

      Clobbering reality with statistics is what you do when you don't have a theory to work with.

      It's kind of un-scientific, but it puts all that equipment to 'good use.'

      Right. Statistical analysis has been useless in physics, why should we expect any better when applied to biology?

      Of course, some people actually think science is about determining probability in order to predict the future. Those in the know understand science is about making up cool facts that others can believe without evidence, like religion. We don't need even one math, so the idea of maths is just silly.

      (Sometimes I wish Slashdot had a desightful rating.)

  • by Anonymous Coward

    published, I am all for it. Every day we see articles with studies which cannot be statistically valid being flaunted. It's no wonder two thirds of them cannot be reproduced. If they only applied the analysis required by a first-year physics or chemistry student the world would be a lot nicer place.

  • Well, duh. (Score:4, Informative)

    by karlandtanya ( 601084 ) on Saturday October 15, 2016 @07:36PM (#53083097)

    Without math, you don't have science, you're just collecting anecdotes.
    Really--I don't know what further to say. I'm just floored this is even a subject for discussion.

    • Re:Well, duh. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by guises ( 2423402 ) on Saturday October 15, 2016 @10:57PM (#53083733)
      This hasn't always been the case. Michael Faraday had no formal degree and used hardly any math and yet contributed a great deal. I just watched a lecture series by him recently (reccomended [youtube.com]) and was impressed by how much he was able to demonstrate through nothing but rigorous qualitative experimentation. I kinda have this impression, which I know to be completely false, that everyone prior to the modern era were total idiots who ascribed all natural phenomena to humorous vapors and spirits and the mumbling of witch doctors. To be able to learn something about the physical world from someone who's been dead for 150 years is somewhat revelatory.

      Of course, most all of what can be learned that way has been learned that way. So you're not completely off base to say that you can't do science without math if you're talking about contributing to the sum of human knowledge, but a person who learns a thing through rigorous experimentation and application of the scientific method is still doing science, even if what they discover is already known to the broader scientific community.
      • To be able to learn something about the physical world from someone who's been dead for 150 years is somewhat revelatory.

        Well, look at some the names that are prominent in science, especially mathematics:

        Euclid, ~2000 years ago, the father of, well, Euclidean geometry
        Isaac Newton, ~400 years ago, prominent contributor to classical mechanics and differential calculus
        Gauss, ~350 years ago, major contributor to just about anything, not least differential geometry
        etc

        In fact, most of the mathematics and physics you study as an undergraduate at university is at least 100 years old (apart from linear algebra, which is surprisingly y

      • I kinda have this impression, which I know to be completely false, that everyone prior to the modern era were total idiots who ascribed all natural phenomena to humorous vapors and spirits and the mumbling of witch doctors.

        Well, it may be false, but since the "modern era" is considered to have started sometime around 1600, it doesn't include Faraday in any case, so even if it were true, it wouldn't exempt him.

      • by xtsigs ( 2236840 )

        was impressed by how much he was able to demonstrate through nothing but rigorous qualitative experimentation.

        My Aunt Erma can telepathically communicate with her cat. Through rigorous qualitative experimentation, I have determined she can call her cat to her just using her mental powers. At least, it seems that way, perhaps more than 50% of the time. Maybe it just happens occasionally. No need to run the numbers, though. Without all those bothersome "statistics," I can tell you that Aunt Erma's cat telepathy is a sure thing because when the cat come and curls up on her lap, Aunt Erma says, "You heard me calling y

      • "Maths" is a lot more than arithmetic (A rat in Tommy's house...).
        The most important mathematical discipline in science is simple Boolean logic that (at least at one time) was taught as part of the freshman high school math curriculum. The tools of logical thought and formal deduction rather than "hand waving" explanations are the *first* requirements.

        More to the point of the article...
        Scientists generally organize themselves into a couple of different disciplines--simply because the skill sets (and techni

      • I kinda have this impression, which I know to be completely false, that everyone prior to the modern era were total idiots who ascribed all natural phenomena to humorous vapors and spirits and the mumbling of witch doctors.

        This is the fault of both bad science teaching and bad history teaching. The history of science is generally taught as a barrage of "cherry-picked" historical anecdotes that make it look like a series of brilliant unerring people who always seemed to find their way progressing to the next advance. We rarely teach the failures in any depth, certainly not acknowledging the reasons why many learned people used to believe in different models or ideas. When we do bring up some failure -- like phlogiston, to t

        • by guises ( 2423402 )

          Unfortunately, they've never been translated to my knowledge from the original Latin, but you can read an English summary here [arxiv.org].

          Hey, that's pretty neat. Thanks. Never even realized arXiv had a "history and philosophy of physics" section.

    • And it's more important to take the next step of identifying what is and isn't mathematics. Chemistry applies extensive use of mathematics though I've often questioned the underlying principles underlying their means of representing objects and effects. I seem to feel as if there must be massive amount of contradicting methods to describe molecular behavior. This in itself is alright, but have we actually observed this behavior and have we corrected the chemical mathematics to properly represent these obser
      • why is it that we use high school chemistry books today that are based on the same mathematics taught before the invention of the electron microscope.

        What do you think has changed? Which parts are obsolete?

  • Purity (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 15, 2016 @08:05PM (#53083177)

    https://xkcd.com/435/ [xkcd.com]

  • by cinnamon colbert ( 732724 ) on Saturday October 15, 2016 @08:32PM (#53083247) Journal

    I was a graduate student under a very famous biologist
    and he often remarked, of all the physicists who have gone into biology, only one or two have made a substantial contribution - their minds don't work the right way
    True, we need math for clinical trials, and omics, but for biology you need a feeling for the organism

    • Was this EO Wilson? If so, he was an idiot. If he wasn't EO Wilson, he was still an idiot.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        As someone who works at the Broad Institute and knows people from physics and finance who have gone into biology, I can say beyond a doubt that the OP's famous biologist must have either not read many papers, not understood how research works now, or was just not thinking much when that comment was made. I don't see how researchers in fields like genetics can get by without at least some programming/analysis/statistics skills - that's what the field is turning into.

  • history repeats (Score:4, Informative)

    by pcr_teacher ( 1977472 ) on Saturday October 15, 2016 @08:41PM (#53083285)

    Physicists have been doing this for a long time. See Max Delbruck and the phage group in the 40's and 50's
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

  • B. F. Skinner's exposition of the appropriate approach to conducting science: http://courses.umass.edu/psyc241/Skinneracasehist.pdf

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