Of all current human endeavors, the life sciences have gained an uncommon stature in recent decades, not seen since the space race started back in the 1960s.
To this day, many of those same analytical concepts, and their modern derivatives, used back then are often attempted to better understand the development of living systems across scale.
It is ironic that the time it takes a light particle to cross a hydrogen molecule, a “zeptosecond1”, can now be measured by scientists; yet we struggle to get overall failure rates in cancer research under 90% 2.
So what does “time”, and our measurement of it, have to do with understanding living systems? After all, both represent a progression of events.
Time is regarded as a linear continuum of identical instants, e. g. – a second.
The development of living systems, however, is a highly non-linear progression of biological events, which are not scaled in “time” at all; but by developmental achievement, as uneven steps.
We are “biology”. It has always been with us; although we still struggle to understand it, we did not invent it.
However “time”, or more correctly, our measurement of it, is a completely invented concept. It is calibrated by externally observed phenomena in our universe. Yet even that perceived precision of time’s measurement, e. g. – a zeptosecond, is still debated to this day by physicists3.
Circling back to time’s role in understanding biology, we need to first establish a critical link between time based mathematics, including all of its derivatives, and its residual analytical approach to living systems.
This magnificent body of knowledge and understanding that we call mathematics, from simple arithmetic and calculus to deep learning and spectral sequences, ultimately depends on time as its metric.
What works so beautifully in the non-living sciences, is essentially useless in describing the emergent and unspecified nature of living organisms. See Biology’s Exquisite Waltz.
With the clarity of hindsight, the subtle and seductive attraction of non-living based analytical tools, when attempting an understanding of actual biological development, may have inadvertently diverted valuable time and resources.
That is not to say, or even imply, that a great deal of highly valuable progress has been made in the life sciences through the use of mathematics, particularly in bioinformatics and medical devices, for example.
It is, however, the reliance on such non-living based analytical tools when predicting the biological outcomes of living organisms, that failure appears. In such a scenario, “time” is not on our side.
It’s about time we start to study and understand biology as the non-linear, unspecified process it is.
1 A zeptosecond is a trillionth of a billionth of a second, or a decimal point followed by 20 zeroes and a 1.
2 Clinical Development Success Rates 2011-2020 Report, Page 10. See https://www.bio.org/clinical-development-success-rates-and-contributing-factors-2011-2020
3 Your location on Earth as indicated on a phone’s GPS is derived from two different clocks; one on a GPS satellite in space and the one on your phone; each running at a slightly different rate. Time on Earth is (slightly) different than time in outer space. See GPS time.