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Although mathematics has long been intertwined with the biological sciences, an explosive …


Biology Articles » Biomathematics » Mathematics Is Biology's Next Microscope, Only Better; Biology Is Mathematics' Next Physics, Only Better » The Future

The Future
- Mathematics Is Biology's Next Microscope, Only Better; Biology Is Mathematics' Next Physics, Only Better

To realize the possibilities of effective synergy between biology and mathematics will require both avoiding potential problems and seizing potential opportunities.

Potential problems.

The productive interaction of biology and mathematics will face problems that concern education, intellectual property, and national security.

Educating the next generation of scientists will require early emphasis on quantitative skills in primary and secondary schools and more opportunities for training in both biology and mathematics at undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels (CUBE 2003).

Intellectual property rights may both stimulate and obstruct the potential synergy of biology and mathematics. Science is a potlatch culture. The bigger one's gift to the common pool of knowledge and techniques, the higher one's status, just as in the potlatch culture of the Native Americans of the northwest coast of North America. In the case of research in mathematics and biology, intellectual property rights to algorithms and databases need to balance the concerns of inventors, developers, and future researchers (Rai and Eisenberg 2003).

A third area of potential problems as well as opportunities is national security. Scientists and national defenders can collaborate by supporting and doing open research on the optimal design of monitoring networks and mitigation strategies for all kinds of biological attacks (Wein et al. 2003). But openness of scientific methods or biological reagents in microbiology may pose security risks in the hands of terrorists. Problems of conserving privacy may arise when disparate databases are connected, such as physician payment databases with disease diagnosis databases, or health databases with law enforcement databases.

Opportunities.

Mathematical models can circumvent ethical dilemmas. For example, in a study of the household transmission of Chagas disease in northwest Argentina, Cohen and Gürtler (2001) wanted to know—since dogs are a reservoir of infection—what would happen if dogs were removed from bedroom areas, without spraying households with insecticides against the insect that transmits infection. Because neither the householders nor the state public health apparatus can afford to spray the households in some areas, the realistic experiment would be to ask householders to remove the dogs without spraying. But a researcher who goes to a household and observes an insect infestation is morally obliged to spray and eliminate the infestation. In a detailed mathematical model, it was easy to set a variable representing the number of dogs in the bedroom areas to zero. All components of the model were based on measurements made in real villages. The calculation showed that banishing dogs from bedroom areas would substantially reduce the intensity of infection in the absence of spraying, though spraying would contribute to additional reductions in the intensity of infection. The model was used to do an experiment conceptually that could not be done ethically in a real village. The conceptual experiment suggested the value of educating villagers about the important health benefits of removing dogs from the bedroom areas.

The future of a scientific field is probably less predictable than the future in general. Doubtless, though, there will be exciting opportunities for the collaboration of mathematics and biology. Mathematics can help biologists grasp problems that are otherwise too big (the biosphere) or too small (molecular structure); too slow (macroevolution) or too fast (photosynthesis); too remote in time (early extinctions) or too remote in space (life at extremes on the earth and in space); too complex (the human brain) or too dangerous or unethical (epidemiology of infectious agents). Box 1 summarizes five biological and five mathematical challenges where interactions between biology and mathematics may prove particularly fruitful.


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