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The Mathematics of Life

The Mathematics of LifeThe Mathematics of Life by Ian Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book explores the author's premise that mathematics is the sixth revolution to impact biology following those of the microscope, classification, evolution, genetics, and DNA's structure. The first third of the book examines the history of each of those revolutions and the impact on biology. The remainder of the book consists of vignettes about the interplay between mathematics and biology. The breadth of material exposed me to fascinating tidbits about animal patterns, evolutionary niches, and general biology. Alas the chapters are loosely coupled and the drive to prove that mathematics is the sixth revolution for biology is barely mentioned at all. In fact the book concludes that "I doubt that mathematics will ever dominate biological thinking in the way it now does for physics, but its role is becoming essential." While I found the book enjoyable to read it's lack of depth or cohesiveness left me wanting more.

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Some notes from my reading:

  • Prokaryotes reproduce by splitting into two copies: this process is called binary fission. Eukaryotes also split into two copies, but because such cells are more complex, their division is also more complex. Additionally, eukaryotes are usually capable of sexual reproduction, ... [84]

  • The relationship between genes and organisms is a feedback loop: genes affect organisms via development; organisms affect genes (in the next generation) via natural selection. [103]

  • Science is seldom about direct observation: it is nearly always about indirect inference. [221]

  • But sometimes [evolution] levers them apart, because several distinct survival strategies can exploit the environment more effectively than one. [238]

  • Now the program can replicate the robot when the robot obeys the instructions, and the robot can replicate the program by copying it but not obeying the instructions. [282]

  • This is one of several ways in which 'deterministic' and 'predictable' differ in practice, despite being essentially the same in principle. [285]

  • Cohen distinguished these two types of feature, calling them universals [likely to be found in alien life forms] and parochials [merely accidents of evolution]. ... Five digits on a hand is a parochial, but appendages that can manipulate objects are universal. [295]

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