The success of the focused issues of the Journal of the Royal Society Interface has now led to the launch of a new journal of The Royal Society, Interface Focus which, as its name suggests, will be devoted to the publication of articles centred on particular themes at the interface of the physical and life sciences. It will therefore relate to its parent journal in precisely the way in which Philosophical Transactions now relate to the Proceedings journals. I am delighted to have been invited to become the first Editor.
The rapid success of the Journal of Royal Society Interface, and of the themed supplements, reflects the growth of multi-disciplinary studies. The boundaries between the biological and the physical sciences now form one of the richest seams at the coalface of scientific research. One of the reasons for this development is that biological science has completed one of its twentieth-century goals, which was to burrow down to the smallest elements in an organism. The sequencing of genomes has provided biology with the equivalent of the periodic table in chemistry or the identification of elementary particles in physics. The analogies are not exact of course. The genome is only part of the system but, even so, it is vastly more extensive than either of those fundamental classifications of elements of physical systems. So also is what it interacts with in its immediate environment, i.e. the cells, tissues, organs and systems of the organism and also, through epigenetic effects, the environment of the organism itself. It is not an exaggeration to say that we have been shocked, not only by the extent of the genetic data (three billion bases pairs in the human), but even more so by the difficulties in interpretation. The simplistic views of much of twentieth-century biology, including the idea that we would find a ‘programme’ in the genome, are yielding to more nuanced approaches, often involving the development of appropriate mathematical and engineering tools. It will be one of the aims of Interface Focus to encourage this kind of dialogue.
Multi-disciplinarity has characterized the Royal Society since its foundation 350 years ago. While writing this editorial I enjoyed reading the correspondence in 1661 between the first Secretary of the society, Henry Oldenburg, and the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza . Oldenburg had just returned from meeting Spinoza in Holland and had been fascinated by the discussion with him on ‘the principles of the Cartesian and Baconian philosophies’. Spinoza was opposed to the dualism of mind and body espoused by Descartes and was in the process of seeking to publish his great work (The Ethics: Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata) in which he proposes an alternative philosophy. The correspondence shows how close the Philosophical Transactions of the society came to being the vehicle for that seminal publication. Oldenburg was not entirely sure what kind of subject Spinoza was dealing with. He writes at one point ‘I see that you are engaged not so much in philosophy as in theology, if I may say so’. He continues ‘I am certain that the work (this particular one was to become the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus) is worthy of you, and that I am most anxious to have it’ . In the end, however, Spinoza did not publish in Philosophical Transactions, but this correspondence includes an important letter from Spinoza on biology, which could form the agenda for modern multi-disciplinary studies at the interface between the physical and biological sciences. He writes: ‘every part of nature agrees with the whole, and is associated with all other parts’ and ‘by the association of parts, then, I merely mean that the laws or nature of one part adapt themselves to the laws or nature of another part, so as to cause the least possible inconsistency’. He realized therefore some of the problems faced in trying to understand what, today, we would characterize as an open system.
In particular, he appreciated the difficulty in working from knowledge of minute components to an understanding of the whole:
Let us imagine, with your permission, a little worm, living in the blood, able to distinguish by sight the particles of blood, lymph etc. and to reflect on the manner in which each particle, on meeting with another particle, either is repulsed, or communicates a portion of its own motion. This little worm would live in the blood, in the same way as we live in a part of the universe, and would consider each particle of blood, not as a part, but as a whole. He would be unable to determine, how all the parts are modified by the general nature of blood, and are compelled by it to adapt themselves, so as to stand in a fixed relation to one another.
(Letter XV, p. 291 )This paragraph could stand even today as a succinct statement of one of the challenges of what has become to be called Systems Biology. He doesn't use a mathematical medium to express his idea, but this could be so expressed as the aim to understand how the initial and boundary conditions of a system constrain the parts to produce a particular solution to the differential equations describing their motions. We need then to move sometimes to the complete system (with whatever boundary we choose to use to define that) in order even to understand the parts. I have no doubt that, as the systems approach to biology gathers speed, there will be many ways in which biologists, physical scientists and mathematicians will need to interact. Publication of their interactions will be the purpose of the journal.
The Editors of Interface Focus welcome proposals for issues of the journal on topics at the interface of the physical and life sciences. For more details please visit the journal's homepage at http://rsfs.royalsocietypublishing.org/.
- This Journal is © 2010 The Royal Society