How Can We Apply Physics to Biology?

How Can We Apply Physics to Biology? by Philip Ball (nautil.us)
We don’t yet know quite what a physics of biology will consist of. But we won’t understand life without it.

This is an awesome little article with some interesting thought and philosophy on the current state of physics within biology and other related areas of study. It’s also got some snippets of history which aren’t frequently discussed in longer form texts.

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Devourer of Encyclopedias: Stanislaw Lem’s “Summa Technologiae”

Devourer of Encyclopedias: Stanislaw Lem's "Summa Technologiae" (The Los Angeles Review of Books)
A review of Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem by David Auerbach from the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Summa Technologiae

AT LAST WE have it in English. Summa Technologiae, originally published in Polish in 1964, is the cornerstone of Stanislaw Lem’s oeuvre, his consummate work of speculative nonfiction. Trained in medicine and biology, Lem synthesizes the current science of the day in ways far ahead of most science fiction of the time.

His subjects, among others, include:

  • Virtual reality
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Nanotechnology and biotechnology
  • Evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology
  • Artificial life
  • Information theory
  • Entropy and thermodynamics
  • Complexity theory, probability, and chaos
  • Population and ecological catastrophe
  • The “singularity” and “transhumanism”

Source: Devourer of Encyclopedias: Stanislaw Lem’s “Summa Technologiae” – The Los Angeles Review of Books

I came across this book review quite serendipitously today via an Auerbach article in Slate, which I’ve bookmarked. I found a copy of the book and have added it to the top of my reading pile. As I’m currently reading an advance reader edition of Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture, I can only imagine how well the two may go together despite being written nearly 60 years apart.

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Schools of Thought in the Hard and Soft Sciences

A framework for determining the difference between the hard and soft sciences.

A recent post in one of the blogs at Discover Magazine the other day had me thinking about the shape of science over time.

Neuroscientists don’t seem to disagree on the big issues. Why are there no big ideas in neuroscience?

Neuroskeptic, Where Are The Big Ideas in Neuroscience? (Part 1)

The article made me wonder about the divide between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences, and how we might better define and delineate them. Perhaps in a particular field, the greater the proliferation of “schools of though,” the more likely something is to be a soft science? (Or mathematically speaking, there’s an inverse relationship in a field between how well supported it is and the number of schools of thought it has.) I consider a school of thought to be a hypothetical/theoretical proposed structure meant to potentially help advance the state of the art and adherents join one of many varying camps while evidence is built up (or not) until one side carries the day.

Firmness of Science vs. # of Schools of Thought
Simple linear approximation of the relationship, though honestly something more similar to y=1/x which is asymptotic to the x and y axes is far more realistic.

Theorem: The greater the proliferation of “schools of though,” the more likely something is to be a soft science.

Generally in most of the hard sciences like physics, biology, or microbiology, there don’t seem to be any opposing or differing schools of thought. While in areas like psychology or philosophy they abound, and often have long-running debates between schools without any hard data or evidence to truly allow one school to win out over another. Perhaps as the structure of a particular science becomes more sound, the concept of schools of thought become more difficult to establish?

For some of the hard sciences, it would seem that schools of thought only exist at the bleeding edge of the state-of-the-art where there isn’t yet enough evidence to swing the field one way or another to firmer ground.

Example: Evolutionary Biology

We might consider the area of evolutionary biology in which definitive evidence in the fossil record is difficult to come by, so there’s room for the opposing thoughts for gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium to be individual schools. Outside of this, most of evolutionary theory is so firmly grounded that there aren’t other schools.

Example: Theoretical Physics

The relatively new field of string theory might be considered a school of thought, though there don’t seem to be a lot of other opposing schools at the moment. If it does, such a school surely exists, in part, because there isn’t the ability to validate it with predictions and current data. However, because of the strong mathematical supporting structure, I’ve yet to hear anyone use the concept of school of thought to describe string theory, which sits in a community which seems to believe its a foregone conclusion that it or something very close to it represents reality. (Though for counterpoint, see Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics.)

Example: Mathematics

To my knowledge, I can’t recall the concept of school of thought ever being applied to mathematics except in the case of the Pythagorean School which historically is considered to have been almost as much a religion as a science. Because of its theoretical footings, I suppose there may never be competing schools, for even in the case of problems like P vs. NP, individuals may have some gut reaction to which way things are leaning, everyone ultimately knows it’s going to be one or the other (P=NP or P \neq NP). Many mathematicians also know that it’s useful to try to prove a theorem during the day and then try to disprove it (or find a counterexample) by night, so even internally and individually they’re self-segregating against creating schools of thought right from the start.

Example: Religion

Looking at the furthest end of the other side of the spectrum, because there is no verifiable way to prove that God exists, there has been an efflorescence of religions of nearly every size and shape since the beginning of humankind. Might we then presume that this is the softest of the ‘sciences’?

What examples or counter examples can you think of?

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New Routledge Text on Systems Theory

Over the holiday I ran across a press release, which follows with web links added, for a new book on systems theory. It promises to be an excellent read on the development and philosophy of systems theory for those interested in cybernetics, information theory, complexity and related topics.

Book cover image of Traditions of Systems Theory: Major Figures and Contemporary Developments

MIAMI, Fla., Dec. 19, 2013
Dr. Darrell Arnold, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Institute for World Languages and Cultures at St. Thomas University, has published an edited volume with Routledge entitled Traditions of Systems Theory: Major Figures and Contemporary Developments. Hans-Georg Moeller, of University College Cork, Ireland, notes that the book “provides a state-of-the-art survey of the increasingly influential and fascinating field of systems theory. It is a highly useful resource for a wide range of disciplines and contributes significantly to bringing together current trends in the sciences and the humanities.” The book includes 17 articles from leading theoreticians in the field, including pieces by Ranulph Glanville, the President of the American Society for Cybernetics, as well as Debora Hammond, the former President of the International Society for Systems Sciences. It is the first comprehensive edited volume in English on the major and countervailing developments within systems theory.

Dr. Arnold writes on 19th century German philosophy, contemporary social theory, as well as technology and globalization, with a focus on how these areas relate to the environmental problematic. He has translated numerous books from German, including C. Mantzavinos’s Naturalistic Hermeneutics (Cambridge UP) and Matthias Vogel’s Media of Reason (Columbia UP). Dr. Arnold is also editor-in-chief of the Humanities and Technology Review.

For additional information on St. Thomas University academic programs and faculty publications, please contact Marivi Prado, Chief Marketing Officer, 305.474.6880; mprado@stu.edu

Dr. Darrell P. Arnold
Dr. Darrell P. Arnold

I’ve ordered my copy and will be providing a review shortly.

Beauty, Melody, and Entropy are an Equivalence Class

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, OM, FRS (1882-1944), a British astronomer, physicist, and mathematician
in The Nature of the Physical World, 1927

 

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington

 

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