Category: Life Science

Are All Fish the Same Shape if You Stretch Them? The Victorian Tale of On Growth and Form

Is there a global theory for the shapes of fishes? It’s the kind of thing I might feel encouraged to ask by my explorations of simple programs and the forms they produce. But for most of the history of biology, it’s not the kind of thing anyone would ever have asked. With one notable exception: D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.

And it’s now 100 years since D’Arcy Thompson published the first edition of his magnum opus On Growth and Form—and tried to use ideas from mathematics and physics to discuss global questions of biological growth and form. Probably the most famous pages of his book are the ones about fish shapes:

D'Arcy Thomspon and fish sketches

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Computation and the Future of Biomedicine

In the last several weeks, I’ve given talks about innovation, mobile technology, mathematics and philosophy. Last week I gave a talk at the Bio–IT World conference in Boston.

At the beginning I covered many of my favorite topics: Wolfram|Alpha, Mathematica, A New Kind of Science. But then I turned more specifically to biomedicine, and talked about quite a few topics that I’ve never discussed in public before.

Here’s an edited transcript.

Bio-IT World

OK. Well. I’m going to talk about some pretty ambitious things here today.

Both in technology and in science.

I’m going to talk about what we can know, and what we can compute, in biomedicine.

And about how we can make use of that.

I’m going to talk both about some practical technology and some basic science that I’ve been involved in building, that tries to address those things.

Many of you I hope will have seen and used Wolfram|Alpha, which has been off entertaining us in the background there.

Let me start with that.

You know–when computers, and I, were a lot younger, it used to be a common assumption that one day one would just be able to walk up to a computer and ask it anything.

And that if what one asked could somehow be answered on the basis of any knowledge that had been accumulated in our civilization, then the computer would be able to figure it out.

Well, 30 years ago I started wondering what it would take to actually do this.

And at first I have to say I thought the only possibility was to build a whole artificial intelligence—a whole brain-like thing that somehow thinks like a human.

And that seemed really hard.

But gradually I realized that actually, that might not be the right direction at all.

And that we might not want to build sort of the analog of a bird—but rather the analog of an airplane.

And that computation—and a bunch of ideas around it—might be the key.

Well, by that point I’d assembled a pretty big stack of technology and science, and organizational capability.

And a little more than five years ago I decided it was time to try a serious assault on the problem—of making the world’s knowledge computable.

Well, the result was Wolfram|Alpha. Which is a very long-term project.

But already gets used every day by millions of people, who manage effectively just to walk up to it and have it answer all kinds of things.
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