I’ve had one of my mathematical days today, and my head is full of sines and cosines. I did what I wanted to do, which was to build a computer simulation model of a 2D cell growing and dividing, in two different ways. I was almost going to go on and produce another variant, but my brain ran out of cosines, and so instead I’ve broken open a bottle of Beck’s, and dropped a couple of slices of lemon in it, and started wondering…
For the past year, since I moved from Devon to Herefordshire, I seem to have become something of a theoretical biologist, first building computer simulation models of cell population growth, and then building computer simulation models of cell growth and division.
I don’t know whether there actually are such things as theoretical biologists. I did a search for it online a while back, and it seems there actually are such creatures out there, and they build computer simulation models too. But generally when I think of biologists, I think of people peering through microscopes at cells, or hunting butterflies in Amazon forests. They’re people who look at living things and classify them and dissect them and photo them.
Biology was one thing I never studied at school. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested. It was because I really hated the smell that came out of the school biology lab. I think it was the smell of formaldehyde, and it was the most godawful smell in the world. Some people say that tobacco smoke “stinks”, but if tobacco smoke stinks, what the heck does formaldehyde do? Because I thought it was such an awful smell that I couldn’t contemplate ever spending more than 10 seconds in the school biology lab. In fact, I never went inside it once. The overpowering stench of the place stopped me in my tracks yards outside the front door.
I think they used it as a preservative. As far as I could make out, they spent their time dissecting frogs and catfish and stuff. Which I could sort of understand, except that it seemed to me that if you’re studying dead catfish and dead frogs you’re not, well,… you’re not studying living things, are you? You’re studying dead things. I had the same feeling when I wandered round the natural history museum in Kensington, full of dinosaur skeletons, all of them very, very dead. I wanted to understand living things, not dead things.
Not that I have a clue what formaldehyde is, because I didn’t study chemistry either. But I at least got inside a chemistry lab, because they generally didn’t smell quite as bad as biology labs did. Although our one had a fume cupboard in which there was a mountain of glass that produced hydrogen sulphide – which is also pretty malodorous stuff, but not (in my opinion) half as bad as formaldehyde. But although I actually got inside a chemistry lab, I could never understand much chemistry. The chemistry master would write chemical equations up on the board which were like 2H2 + N02 –> H2NO + H2O or something, and I’d wonder why it couldn’t just be 2H2 + N02 –> H4N02. A brand new compound that could dissolve glass. I never did understand, and gradually spiralled down to the bottom of the class. I spent most of my time hiding behind the bottles, hoping I wouldn’t get asked anything. Because if I was, I was almost certain not to know the answer. Eventually I gave up chemistry completely. Which was unusual for me. Most subjects I could do pretty well, but not chemistry.
I didn’t have the same problems with maths and physics. Which may have been because the maths classroom and the physics lab didn’t have their own godawful stygian pong. Say what you like about them, but there’s one good thing about equations: they don’t smell of anything. You don’t have to wash your hands for half an hour after you’ve solved a few simultaneous equations.
Many years later, I came across a book called Physical Chemistry which explained chemistry in terms of physics. All the mysterious bonds between atoms were explained in a completely new way, and a way I could understand, and I wished that I’d been taught chemistry that way. One day I’ll buy myself a book of Physical Chemistry, and become engrossed in it, because it’ll be like reading a thriller.
So it means that, if I’m a theoretical biologist at all (and I’m probably not even that), I’m a theoretical biologist who knows very little about biology, and even less about chemistry. But that hasn’t deterred me from thinking about living things. I just think about them using things that I do understand, like simple physics and simple mathematics. And I build simple theoretical models of simple living things using simple physics and simple mathematics. They’re models of a kind that nobody else uses, because I’m the only one who uses them. They’re abstract models that I’ve slowly pieced together myself, over many years.
What it means is that I look at living things very differently than most biologists do. I look at it through mathematical-physical eyes, which they never seem to do. They seem to look at it through chemical eyes (the ones I can’t see through, because I’m chemically blind).
When I look at cells, I see things that have got length and breadth and mass and volume and geometry. Lots and lots of geometry. And I see things that gain and lose energy, and which are being pushed and shoved by other cells around them. And which are being stretched and squeezed and twisted and crushed and bent.
And it really puzzles me that biologists don’t see them that way too. But it seems they don’t. I’ve got a book this thick on molecular cell biology that I bought about 20 years ago, when I started getting interested in cells and biology. It’s beautifully illustrated. It’s a work of art. But it’s chock full of chemistry, and there’s next to no physics or mathematics in it.
It seems to me that the biologists have a pretty complete chemical understanding of living things. They know exactly what living things are made of. And they even know how living things make their chemical constituents. They unpackaged the citric acid cycle, and they’ve unwound DNA. They know everything.
But to me that seems like knowing that a house is made of bricks and mortar and timber and glass and tiles, and even knowing exactly how bricks and mortar and timber and glass are manufactured, but not having an understanding of how the whole house works as a piece of architecture, as a whole. And they don’t seem to see it that way at all. It’s as if they’re as blind to mathematics and physics as I am blind to chemistry.
Because for me a cell is the House of Life, and I look at it like an architect would look at it, or maybe a structural engineer (because I was taught those ways of seeing). I look at the geometry of the whole thing. I look at the stresses and strains that are exerted in it. For me, it’s not chemistry: it’s geometry and physics.
And looking at cells in the funny theoretical way that I do, I’ve been looking at cancer. Because cancer is a cellular disorder whereby cancer cells just keep on growing and dividing. And so it was only natural, after I’d come up with a new explanation of how cells divide (which isn’t quite the same as the textbook explanation) that I’d start to wonder how cancer cells grew and divided.
And I’ve maybe begun to understand cancer a bit. I think I can understand the geometry of cancer a little bit. Only fractionally maybe. But enough to feel able to write something about it that might provide an interesting new perspective on it.
And maybe it’ll help. After all, it’s us smokers with our smoking that’s supposed to be the root cause of all cancer. It might help for one of us to come up with another idea. After all, in 60 years, they don’t seem to have made any progress, beyond banning smoking almost everywhere.
So maybe later on this week, I’ll try to write something about cancer. I’ll try and steer clear of mathematics, and make it as easy to understand as possible. I’ll try to keep it simple and graphical. And I hope that, if nothing else, it’ll make cancer seem a bit less terrifying, and a lot more interesting. Because that’s how it’s become for me.