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Do you know what's good for you: the next microscope

"Mathematics is biology's next microscope, only better." That's what the scientist Joel E Cohen once said of the power of mathematics to revolutionise biology and the biomedical sciences. And he was right. Maths enables scientists to understand complex organisms and diseases, it's crucial in developing sophisticated medical technology and materials, and we can even use it to model our psyche and intelligence. That's quite beside its ability to cope with the vast complexity that comes with biological information such as genomes and to quantify the uncertainties involved. In this sense maths has become a genuine research instrument for biomedical sciences. The insight it gives them are on a par with the revolutionising power of the microscope.

This is the final package in our series on the role of maths and stats in the biomedical sciences, produced with generous support from the Wellcome Trust. We bring together articles and podcasts exploring some of the uses of maths as a research tool — from modelling cancer to understanding visual hallucinations.

Our articles cover four areas: the body and the brain, looking at how maths is used to understand physical processes within our bodies and our brains, the mind, exploring the use of maths to understand human psychology, and technology, looking at the role of maths in developing medical instruments and materials. There's also a classroom activity exploring how mathematics can help explain how all the amazing complexity we see in living organisms arises.

Articles: the body

Biology's next microscope, mathematics' next physics

It is thought that the next great advances in biology and medicine will be discovered with mathematics. As biology stands on the brink of becoming a theoretical science Thomas Fink asks if there is more to this collaboration than maths acting as biology's newest microscope? Will theoretical biology lead to new and exciting maths just as theoretical physics did in the last two centuries. And is there a mathematically elegant story behind life?

Read more...

Eat, drink and be merry: making it go down well

When you swallow an aspirin or some yummy nutritious food, how can you be sure that the beneficial components are absorbed by your gut, rather than "shooting straight out"? This article dives into the rather smelly business of digesting food and how an application of chaos theory shows the best way to digest a medicinal drug. Read more...

Creating a virtual cancer

Cancer is one of the major causes of death in the world (particularly the developed world), with around 11 million people diagnosed and around 7 million people dying each year. The World Health Organisation predicts that current trends show around 9 million will die in 2015, with the number rising to 11.5 million in 2030. This news story from October 2009 reports on the work of mathematician Mark Chaplain and an interdisciplinary team at the University of Dundee to develop a virtual model of cancer growth and spread. Read more....

Uncovering the cause of cholera

London, September, 1853. A cholera outbreak has decimated Soho, killing 10% of the population and wiping out entire families in days. Current medical theories assert that the disease is spread by "bad air" emanating from the stinking open sewers. But one physician, John Snow, has a different theory: that cholera is spread through contaminated water. And he is just about to use mathematics to prove that he is right. Read more...


Through the looking-glass

Some molecules - thalidomide, for example - come in both left and right handed versions, while others are indistinguishable from their reflections. We find out about mathematical symmetry in chemistry, which has many applications in the biomedical sciences. Read more...


Stretch, but without the wrinkles

A team of nanoengineers have constructed new materials that don't wrinkle when you stretch them. This makes them similar to tissue found in the human body, so they may in the future be used to repair damaged heart walls, blood vessels and skin.Read more...


Keeping track of immunity

Dengue fever does the opposite of what you might expect. Unlike for many diseases, if you've had this tropical virus and recovered, you might be worse off, as a second exposure to the dengue virus can be life threatening. So keeping track of the strains of the diseases is an important problem which can be solved with the help of a little randomness. Read more...


Shaping our bones

We know that applying a force to a bone during its development can influence its growth and shape. But can we use our understanding of how developing bone reacts to mechanical forces to help people suffering from diseases that lead to bone deformities? Read more...


Feeling tense about healing wounds?

Squeamish about cuts and scrapes? Maths can help you feel better.Read more...


Florence Nightingale: The compassionate statistician

Florence Nightingale survives in our imaginations as an inspired nurse who radically reformed professional nursing as a result of the horrors she witnessed. But the "lady with the lamp" was also a pioneering and passionate statistician. Read more...


School students deliver cutting edge research

Find out how a group of school students-turned-researchers delivered new data that will help scientists stem the spread of infectious diseases. Read more...

Articles: technology

Saving lives: the mathematics of tomography

Not so long ago, if you had a medical complaint, doctors had to open you up to see what it was. These days they have a range of sophisticated imaging techniques at their disposal, saving you the risk and pain of an operation. This article looks at the maths that isn't only responsible for these medical techniques, but also for much of the digital revolution.Read more...


Kelvin's bubble burst again

The Kelvin problem, posed by Lord Kelvin in 1887, is to find an arrangement of cells, or bubbles, of equal volume, so that the surface area of the walls between them is as small as possible — in other words, to find the most efficient soap bubble foam. A researcher from the University of Bath has tackled this old geometric problem with a new method, and this news story from September 2009 explains that this may lead to advances in creating hip replacements and replacement bone tissue for bone cancer patients. Read more...


Eat, drink and be merry: making sure it's safe

Food that's not been cooked properly poses a major threat to public health: if it doesn't go up to 100 degrees, some bugs will survive. This article looks at some clever maths used to design microwave ovens for maximum safety. Read more...


Articles: the brain

Struggling with your maths?

If you are, then you may be one of the 5 to 7% of the population suffering from dyscalculia, the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia. But unlike many dyslexia sufferers, you probably haven't received the help you need to cope with your condition. As a recent article published in the journal Science points out, dyscalculia is the "poor relation" of dyslexia. Read more...


Born to count?

People as well as animals are born with a sense for numbers. But is this inborn number sense related to mathematical ability? A new study suggests that it is. Read more...


Wiring up brains

The human brain faces a difficult trade-off. On the one hand it needs to be complex to ensure high performance. On the other hand it needs to minimise what you might call wiring cost — the sum of the length of all the connections — because communication over distance is metabolically expensive. It's a problem well-known to computer scientists. And it seems that market-driven human invention and natural selection, faced with similar challenges, have come up with similar solutions. Read more... You can also listen to our podcast exploring complexity in the brain.


Neuro-tweets: #hashtagging the brain

We like to think of the human brain as special, but as we reported on Plus last year, it has quite a lot in common with worm brains and even with high-performance information processing systems. But how does it compare to online social networks? In a recent lecture the psychiatrist Ed Bullmore put this question to the test.


Uncoiling the spiral: Maths and hallucinations

Think drug-induced hallucinations, and the whirly, spirally, tunnel-vision-like patterns of psychedelic imagery immediately spring to mind. But it's not just hallucinogenic drugs that conjure up these geometric structures. People have reported seeing them in near-death experiences, following sensory deprivation, or even just after applying pressure to the eyeballs. So what can these patterns tell us about the structure of our brains? Read more...

Controlling cockroach chaos

Catching sight of a cockroach tends to make us behave chaotically, what with the running and screaming and throwing of shoes. But it appears that chaos might actually explain how we, and the cockroach itself, behave. This news story from February 2010 reports on a robotic cockroach that autonomously behaves in a way reminiscent of a real cockraoch. Recreating lifelike behaviour is not new, but this robot reproduces a huge range of behaviours and quickly reacts to new situations and switches between them. And the secret to its success is controlled chaos in its robotic brain. Read more...


Chaos in the brain

Saying that someone is a chaotic thinker might seem like an insult, but, aas this article shows, it could be that the mathematical phenomenon of chaos is a crucial part of what makes our brains work.Read more...


Articles: the mind

Speaking maths

We often think of mathematics as a language, but does our brain process mathematical structures in the same way as it processes language? A recent study suggests that it does: the process of storing and reusing syntax "works across cognitive domains." Read more...


Baby robots feel the love

Researchers have for the first time created robots that can develop and express emotions. They are capable of expressing anger, fear, sadness, happiness, excitement and pride and will demonstrate very visible distress if you fail to give them comfort when they need it. And they can even display different personality traits. Read more...


Trust me, I've evolved

Why are some people generous and others selfish? There's no doubt that both strategies pay off under certain circumstances, but research (as well as everyday experience) shows that we are not mere opportunists — some people simply are nicer than others. This raises a question which intrigues evolutionary psychologists: is there a selective force that works in favour of a wide range of personalities, preventing us from all evolving the same optimal character trait? Read more...


Podcast

Podcast: Small worlds on the brain

What do the human brain, the Internet and climate change have in common? They're all hugely complex, and while they're very different, the tools used to grapple with this complexity are likely to be similar. We visited the Cambridge complex systems consortium, dedicated to building an over-arching science of complexity, and talked to neuroscientist Ed Bullmore, mathematician Frank Kelly and climate scientist Hans Graf about their take on complexity. Hear more...

Classroom activity: the game of life

One of the amazing things about life is its sheer complexity. How can a bunch of mindless cells combine to form something as complex as the human brain, or as delicate, beautiful and highly organised as the patterns on a butterfly's wing? Maths has some surprising answers you can explore yourself with this interactive activity.

Explore the game of life...

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