When humans take the drug MDMA, versions of which are known as molly or ecstasy, they commonly feel very happy, extraverted, and particularly interested in physical touch. A group of scientists recently wondered whether this drug might have a similar effect on other species—specifically, octopuses, which are seemingly as different from humans as an animal can be. The results of their experiment, in which seven octopuses took MDMA, were “unbelievable.”
Chalmer's famously identified pinpointing an explanation for our subjective experience as the "hard problem of consciousness". He argued that subjective experience constitutes a "hard problem" in the sense that its explanation will ultimately require new physical laws or principles. Here, we propose a corresponding "hard problem of life" as the problem of how `information' can affect the world. In this essay we motivate both why the problem of information as a causal agent is central to explaining life, and why it is hard - that is, why we suspect that a full resolution of the hard problem of life will, similar to as has been proposed for the hard problem of consciousness, ultimately not be reducible to known physical principles. Comments: To appear in "From Matter to Life: Information and Causality". S.I. Walker, P.C.W. Davies and G.F.R. Ellis (eds). Cambridge University Press
The origins of life stands among the great open scientific questions of our time. While a number of proposals exist for possible starting points in the pathway from non-living to living matter, these have so far not achieved states of complexity that are anywhere near that of even the simplest living systems. A key challenge is identifying the properties of living matter that might distinguish living and non-living physical systems such that we might build new life in the lab. This review is geared towards covering major viewpoints on the origin of life for those new to the origin of life field, with a forward look towards considering what it might take for a physical theory that universally explains the phenomenon of life to arise from the seemingly disconnected array of ideas proposed thus far. The hope is that a theory akin to our other theories in fundamental physics might one day emerge to explain the phenomenon of life, and in turn finally permit solving its origins.
The putative fossils formed just a few hundred million years after Earth itself
Epigenetics refers to information transmitted during cell division other than the DNA sequence per se, and it is the language that distinguishes stem cells from somatic cells, one organ from another, and even identical twins from each other. In contrast to the DNA sequence, the epigenome is relatively susceptible to modification by the environment as well as stochastic perturbations over time, adding to phenotypic diversity in the population. Despite its strong ties to the environment, epigenetics has never been well reconciled to evolutionary thinking, and in fact there is now strong evidence against the transmission of so-called “epi-alleles,” i.e. epigenetic modifications that pass through the germline.
However, genetic variants that regulate stochastic fluctuation of gene expression and phenotypes in the offspring appear to be transmitted as an epigenetic or even Lamarckian trait. Furthermore, even the normal process of cellular differentiation from a single cell to a complex organism is not understood well from a mathematical point of view. There is increasingly strong evidence that stem cells are highly heterogeneous and in fact stochasticity is necessary for pluripotency. This process appears to be tightly regulated through the epigenome in development. Moreover, in these biological contexts, “stochasticity” is hardly synonymous with “noise”, which often refers to variation which obscures a “true signal” (e.g., measurement error) or which is structural, as in physics (e.g., quantum noise). In contrast, “stochastic regulation” refers to purposeful, programmed variation; the fluctuations are random but there is no true signal to mask.
This workshop will serve as a forum for scientists and engineers with an interest in computational biology to explore the role of stochasticity in regulation, development and evolution, and its epigenetic basis. Just as thinking about stochasticity was transformative in physics and in some areas of biology, it promises to fundamentally transform modern genetics and help to explain phase transitions such as differentiation and cancer.
This workshop will include a poster session; a request for poster titles will be sent to registered participants in advance of the workshop.
Adam Arkin (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory)
Gábor Balázsi (SUNY Stony Brook)
Domitilla Del Vecchio (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Michael Elowitz (California Institute of Technology)
Andrew Feinberg (Johns Hopkins University)
Don Geman (Johns Hopkins University)
Anita Göndör (Karolinska Institutet)
John Goutsias (Johns Hopkins University)
Garrett Jenkinson (Johns Hopkins University)
Andre Levchenko (Yale University)
Olgica Milenkovic (University of Illinois)
Johan Paulsson (Harvard University)
Leor Weinberger (University of California, San Francisco (UCSF))
Life was long thought to obey its own set of rules. But as simple systems show signs of lifelike behavior, scientists are arguing about whether this apparent complexity is all a consequence of thermodynamics.
This is a nice little general interest article by Philip Ball that does a relatively good job of covering several of my favorite topics (information theory, biology, complexity) for the layperson. While it stays relatively basic, it links to a handful of really great references, many of which I’ve already read, though several appear to be new to me. 
While Ball has a broad area of interests and coverage in his work, he’s certainly one of the best journalists working in this subarea of interests today. I highly recommend his work to those who find this area interesting.
Scientists are uncovering how our bodies — and everything within them — tell right from left.
Neuroengineering is faced with unique challenges in repairing or replacing complex neural systems that are composed of many interacting parts. These interactions form intricate patterns over large spatiotemporal scales, and produce emergent behaviors that are difficult to predict from individual elements. Network science provides a particularly appropriate framework in which to study and intervene in such systems, by treating neural elements (cells, volumes) as nodes in a graph and neural interactions (synapses, white matter tracts) as edges in that graph. Here, we review the emerging discipline of network neuroscience, which uses and develops tools from graph theory to better understand and manipulate neural systems, from micro- to macroscales. We present examples of how human brain imaging data is being modeled with network analysis and underscore potential pitfalls. We then highlight current computational and theoretical frontiers, and emphasize their utility in informing diagnosis and monitoring, brain-machine interfaces, and brain stimulation. A flexible and rapidly evolving enterprise, network neuroscience provides a set of powerful approaches and fundamental insights critical to the neuroengineer's toolkit.
17 pages, 6 figures. Manuscript accepted to the journal Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering 
The Santa Fe Institute, in New Mexico, is a place for studying complex systems. I’ve never been there! Next week I’ll go there to give a colloquium on network theory, and also to participate in this workshop.
I just found out about this from John Carlos Baez and wish I could go! How have I not managed to have heard about it?
Syndicated copies to:
November 16, 2016 – November 18, 2016
Noyce Conference Room
This workshop will address a fundamental question in theoretical biology: Does the relationship between statistical physics and the need of biological systems to process information underpin some of their deepest features? It recognizes that a core feature of biological systems is that they acquire, store and process information (i.e., perform computation). However to manipulate information in this way they require a steady flux of free energy from their environments. These two, inter-related attributes of biological systems are often taken for granted; they are not part of standard analyses of either the homeostasis or the evolution of biological systems. In this workshop we aim to fill in this major gap in our understanding of biological systems, by gaining deeper insight in the relation between the need for biological systems to process information and the free energy they need to pay for that processing.
The goal of this workshop is to address these issues by focusing on a set three specific question:
- How has the fraction of free energy flux on earth that is used by biological computation changed with time?;
- What is the free energy cost of biological computation / function?;
- What is the free energy cost of the evolution of biological computation / function.
In all of these cases we are interested in the fundamental limits that the laws of physics impose on various aspects of living systems as expressed by these three questions.
Purpose: Research Collaboration
SFI Host: David Krakauer, Michael Lachmann, Manfred Laubichler, Peter Stadler, and David Wolpert
This tutorial will review the basics of theory in the field of evolutionary quantitative genetics and its connections to evolution observed at various time scales. Quantitative genetics deals with the inheritance of measurements of traits that are affected by many genes. Quantitative genetic theory for natural populations was developed considerably in the period from 1970 to 1990 and up to the present, and it has been applied to a wide range of phenomena including the evolution of differences between the sexes, sexual preferences, life history traits, plasticity of traits, as well as the evolution of body size and other morphological measurements. Textbooks have not kept pace with these developments, and currently few universities offer courses in this subject aimed at evolutionary biologists. There is a need for evolutionary biologists to understand this field because of the ability to collect large amounts of data by computer, the development of statistical methods for changes of traits on evolutionary trees and for changes in a single species through time, and the realization that quantitative characters will not soon be fully explained by genomics. This tutorial aims to fill this need by reviewing basic aspects of theory and illustrating how that theory can be tested with data, both from single species and with multiple-species phylogenies. Participants will learn to use R, an open-source statistical programming language, to build and test evolutionary models. The intended participants for this tutorial are graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty members in evolutionary biology.
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.Syndicated copies to:
A review of Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem by David Auerbach from the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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”
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.Syndicated copies to:
Information is a precise concept that can be defined mathematically, but its relationship to what we call "knowledge" is not always made clear. Furthermore, the concepts "entropy" and "information", while deeply related, are distinct and must be used with care, something that is not always achieved in the literature. In this elementary introduction, the concepts of entropy and information are laid out one by one, explained intuitively, but defined rigorously. I argue that a proper understanding of information in terms of prediction is key to a number of disciplines beyond engineering, such as physics and biology.
A proper understanding of information in terms of prediction is key to a number of disciplines beyond engineering, such as physics and biology.
Comments: 19 pages, 2 figures. To appear in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A
Subjects: Adaptation and Self-Organizing Systems (nlin.AO); Information Theory (cs.IT); Biological Physics (physics.bio-ph); Quantitative Methods (q-bio.QM)
Cite as:arXiv:1601.06176 [nlin.AO] (or arXiv:1601.06176v1 [nlin.AO] for this version)
As it was published, I had read Kevin Hartnett’s article and interview with Christoph Adami The Information Theory of Life in Quanta Magazine. I recently revisited it and read through the commentary and stumbled upon an interesting quote relating to the history of information in biology:
These two historical references predate Claude Shannon’s mathematical formalization of information in A Mathematical Theory of Communication (The Bell System Technical Journal, 1948) and even Erwin Schrödinger‘s lecture (1943) and subsequent book What is Life (1944).
For those interested in reading more on this historical tidbit, I’ve dug up a copy of the primary Forsdyke reference which first appeared on arXiv (prior to its ultimate publication in History of Psychiatry [.pdf]):
🔖 [1406.1391] ‘A Vehicle of Symbols and Nothing More.’ George Romanes, Theory of Mind, Information, and Samuel Butler by Donald R. Forsdyke 
Submitted on 4 Jun 2014 (v1), last revised 13 Nov 2014 (this version, v2)
Abstract: Today’s ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) concept is rooted in the distinction of nineteenth century philosopher William Clifford between ‘objects’ that can be directly perceived, and ‘ejects,’ such as the mind of another person, which are inferred from one’s subjective knowledge of one’s own mind. A founder, with Charles Darwin, of the discipline of comparative psychology, George Romanes considered the minds of animals as ejects, an idea that could be generalized to ‘society as eject’ and, ultimately, ‘the world as an eject’ – mind in the universe. Yet, Romanes and Clifford only vaguely connected mind with the abstraction we call ‘information,’ which needs ‘a vehicle of symbols’ – a material transporting medium. However, Samuel Butler was able to address, in informational terms depleted of theological trappings, both organic evolution and mind in the universe. This view harmonizes with insights arising from modern DNA research, the relative immortality of ‘selfish’ genes, and some startling recent developments in brain research.
Comments: Accepted for publication in History of Psychiatry. 31 pages including 3 footnotes. Based on a lecture given at Santa Clara University, February 28th 2014, at a Bannan Institute Symposium on ‘Science and Seeking: Rethinking the God Question in the Lab, Cosmos, and Classroom.’
The original arXiv article also referenced two lectures which are appended below:
[Original Draft of this was written on December 14, 2015.]