Life’s Other Secret

Ian Stewart

The new mathematics of the living world. If DNA is the building blocks of biology, then maths may be the builder.

It is very rare that I find myself standing in my local supermarket staring at the surface of a pineapple. But that is exactly what happened soon after I heard Ian Stewart give a lecture on the subject of his latest book. Stewart, who is one of Britain’s most prominent mathematicians, has recently become interested in a new area of research at the frontier between biology and mathematics, which is already providing some startling insights into the living world… including pineapples.

Biomathematics is a reaction against the worship of DNA, and the opinion that genes govern all aspects of life. DNA is essentially a complex set of instructions, and in recent decades there has been a growing belief that it is this strand of molecules which guides all aspects of life.

However, if one looks at the instructions that would be required to dictate the nerve by nerve construction of the human nervous system, then it is clear that our DNA cannot carry enough information to complete this task, let alone all the others. Biomathematics claims that the information gap can be closed by invoking mathematics and the laws of physics….

(extract from Simon Singh’s review, Sunday Telegraph, 11 July 1998)