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Theory, models and biology

By Wenying Shou1, Carl T. Bergstrom2, Arup K. Chakraborty3, Frances K. Skinner4

1. Division of Basic Sciences, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, United States 2. Department of Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, United States 3. Departments of Chemical Engineering, Physics, Chemistry and Biological Engineering, and the Institute for Medical Engineering & Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, United States 4. Toronto Western Research Institute, University Health Network and the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

Theoretical ideas have a rich history in many areas of biology, and new theories and mathematical models have much to offer in the future.

Listed in Teaching Materials

Version 1.0 - published on 25 Oct 2018 doi:10.25334/Q4T42X - cite this

Licensed under CC Attribution 4.0 International according to these terms

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" When scientists want to explain some aspect of nature, they tend to make observations of the natural world or collect experimental data, and then extract regularities or patterns from these observations and data, possibly using some form of statistical analysis. Characterizing these regularities or patterns can help scientists to generate new hypotheses, but statistical correlations on their own do not constitute understanding. Rather, it is when a mechanistic explanation of the regularities or patterns is developed from underlying principles, while relying on as few assumptions as possible, that a theory is born. A scientific theory thus provides a unifying framework that can explain a large class of empirical data. A scientific theory is also capable of making predictions that can be tested experimentally. Moreover, a theory can be refined in the light of new experimental data, and then be used to make new predictions, which can also be tested: over time this cycle of prediction, testing and refinement should result in a more robust and quantitative theory. Thus, the union of empirical and quantitative theoretical work should be a hallmark of any scientific discipline. Theory has long been celebrated in the physical sciences, but the situation is very different in the life sciences. As Conrad Hal Waddington wrote in 1968, in the preface of Towards a Theoretical Biology: ‘Theoretical Physics is a well-recognized discipline, and there are Departments and Professorships devoted to the subject in many Universities. In strong contrast to this situation, Theoretical Biology can hardly be said to exist as yet as an academic discipline. There is even little agreement as to what topics it should deal with or in what manner it should proceed’. "

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