Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Emergent systems.

One of the common stereotypes that scientists often get labelled with is that they reduce everything to dry boring nuts and bolts, taking the beauty out of everything. It's one of the reason I'm not particularly fond of stereotypes and broad generalisations - I know which ones can be applied to me because of my job title and how horrifically wrong they are. This one in particular, is complete bollocks. Or kinda nutty if you (like Richard Feynman) want to be polite.

Why is it bollocks? Personally, I think Feynman's reasoning is bang on. The beauty available to the eye is not the only beauty. Complexity can be a wondrous thing, messy or elegant, operating at many different levels. One of the biggest kicks I get, and I suspect, the main reason that I'm studying systems biology, is when I figure out how a system of parts combines to change something or create something new. In biology, especially at the cellular level, the number of things that contribute to the various processes is huge. Genes are important obviously, metabolites which can be affected by a variety of things such as your diet, proteins - dependant on which genes have been switched on or off, even the relative location and time of all these components can be important. And there's numerous systems affecting those systems as well - diet being one, the day/night cycle being another, all sorts. With all these systems interacting it gets horribly complex very very fast. Which is why I tend to bang on a bit about statistics sometimes, there's a chaotic element to the combination of all these systems that make it tricky to understand without a good understanding of the underlying statistics.
Yet out of these seemingly chaotic systems, working organisms rise. It is the large number of interactions that means most processes do occur when they they are meant to - the body responds the right way to different types of food or a plant responds the right way to an infection. From the combination of these various systems, coherent systems emerge.
Sorry if that's a little waffley, it's a heads up on what I'm going to be trying to work into my posts over the next few weeks, I hope it'll be interesting at the same time as I get better at explaining it.

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