Science by the book

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Tom Wilkie argues that scientific computing holds the answer to the questions posed by Schrödinger in his classic book What is Life?

More than half a century ago, the Nobel Prizewinning physicist Erwin Schrödinger published a slim but influential book entitled What is life? Its effect was pervasive both for scientific and for historical reasons. Many physicists were appalled at the end of the Second World War to see, in the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that the finest work of science to date had been turned into a weapon of unparalleled mass destruction. Their reaction was to turn away from physics. Schrödinger's little book showed them that the life sciences - which had once seemed such a completely separate discipline - were fertile ground for techniques and concepts derived from physics.

 

Within the past year or so, it has become clear that the life sciences are again about to profit from the techniques and concepts of apparently very different disciplines. This time, fortunately, there have been no events equivalent to Hiroshima. The motivation has been scientific - and commercial. When the originators of the Human Genome Project first unveiled their ideas, they did so in language akin to the title of Schrödinger's book - the genome was to be the "Book of Man". Unfortunately, no one quite realised that this book would be essentially unreadable. The genome projects have spawned enormous quantities of data, together with the realisation that, even for a basic understanding of life at the molecular level, researchers needed to know the "proteome" also - for proteins are the molecules used to construct living creatures. The complexity of the data and its immense volume have meant that the only way to derive biologically relevant knowledge is to use computers on a scale that, perhaps ironically, is matched only by the national nuclear weapons design laboratories. However, the type of computing is different: the life sciences trade in data analysis and data mining, not in number crunching; in integrating chemistry and biology. Their mathematics is 3D geometry, not differential equations.

 

The huge demand from the life sciences has called up changes in the scientific computing scene. Suppliers of maths packages are adding data mining modules, while there is a rapidly growing list of dedicated bioinformatics companies. Physicists, who long since specialised in applied computing, are now turning to the life sciences. Some vendors of Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS), as reported in this issue, are examining ways to break out of the quality control/quality assurance environment and apply their expertise to managing life sciences data.

In recognition of this powerful developing trend, the publishers of Scientific Computing World are now producing a quarterly magazine, Bioinformatics World, focusing specifically upon the application of computing to the life sciences. We do so in the certainty that it will offer our readers added value and interest. But we do so also in the knowledge that scientific computing is going to be the only route to finding the answer to the question posed in the title of Schrödinger's book.

Dr Tom Wilkie
Dr Tom Wilkie