There are fascinating ideas all over the place, irresistible experiments beyond numbering, all sorts of new ways into the maze of problems. But every next move is unpredictable, every outcome uncertain. It is a puzzling time, but a very good time.

I do not know how you lay out orderly plans for this kind of activity, but I suppose you could find out by looking through the disorderly records of the past hundred years. Somehow, the atmosphere has to be set so that a disquieting sense of being wrong is the normal attitude of the investigators. It has to be taken for granted that the only way in is by riding the unencumbered human imagination, with the special rigor required for recognizing that something can be highly improbable, maybe almost impossible, and at the same time true.

—Lewis Thomas, on basic science

worm

We are constantly inventing new ways to represent organisms as numbers – genomics, CT scanning, 3D kinematics, molecular phylogenetics, fMRIs, neural networks, and anything else that falls under the label of “big data”.These methods allow researchers to address important, qualitative questions in specific, quantitative ways. This comes with a major caveat: representing organisms as numbers, however comprehensive we try to make those numbers, reduces the organisms.

In the broadest possible sense, my ambitions as a biologist are 1) to figure out how we can choose the right numbers for our questions, 2) to use those numbers to answer those questions in meaningful ways, and 3) to always keep our answers in context of the full complexity of the organisms themselves, warts and all.