Note to users. If you're seeing this message, it means that your browser cannot find this page's style/presentation instructions -- or possibly that you are using a browser that does not support current Web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing, and what you can do to make your experience of our site the best it can be.

Subscribe

Logo for

Science 303 (5659): 790-793

Copyright © 2004 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Uses and Abuses of Mathematics in Biology

Robert M. May

Abstract: In the physical sciences, mathematical theory and experimental investigation have always marched together. Mathematics has been less intrusive in the life sciences, possibly because they have until recently been largely descriptive, lacking the invariance principles and fundamental natural constants of physics. Increasingly in recent decades, however, mathematics has become pervasive in biology, taking many different forms: statistics in experimental design; pattern seeking in bioinformatics; models in evolution, ecology, and epidemiology; and much else. I offer an opinionated overview of such uses—and abuses.

Zoology Department, Oxford University, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK.


THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN CITED BY OTHER ARTICLES:
Controlled vocabularies and semantics in systems biology.
M. Courtot, N. Juty, C. Knupfer, D. Waltemath, A. Zhukova, A. Drager, M. Dumontier, A. Finney, M. Golebiewski, J. Hastings, et al. (2014)
Mol Syst Biol 7, 543
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Forecasting craniofacial growth in individuals with class III malocclusion by computational modelling.
P. Auconi, M. Scazzocchio, E. Defraia, J. A. McNamara, and L. Franchi (2014)
Eur J Orthod 36, 207-216
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
The Hidden Geometry of Complex, Network-Driven Contagion Phenomena.
D. Brockmann and D. Helbing (2013)
Science 342, 1337-1342
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Peripheral selection rather than thymic involution explains sudden contraction in naive CD4 T-cell diversity with age.
P. L. F. Johnson, A. J. Yates, J. J. Goronzy, and R. Antia (2012)
PNAS 109, 21432-21437
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Models with a porpoise.
R. L. Cann (2012)
PNAS 109, 15078-15079
   Full Text »    PDF »
Prediction of invasion from the early stage of an epidemic.
F. J. Perez-Reche, F. M. Neri, S. N. Taraskin, and C. A. Gilligan (2012)
J R Soc Interface 9, 2085-2096
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
How do antigenically varying pathogens avoid cross-reactive responses to invariant antigens?.
P. L. F. Johnson, B. F. Kochin, R. Ahmed, and R. Antia (2012)
Proc R Soc B 279, 2777-2785
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Heavy use of equations impedes communication among biologists.
T. W. Fawcett and A. D. Higginson (2012)
PNAS 109, 11735-11739
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Integrating mechanistic organism-environment interactions into the basic theory of community and evolutionary ecology.
M. L. Baskett (2012)
J. Exp. Biol. 215, 948-961
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Transmission of Chlamydia trachomatis through sexual partnerships: a comparison between three individual-based models and empirical data.
C. L. Althaus, K. M. E. Turner, B. V. Schmid, J. C. M. Heijne, M. Kretzschmar, and N. Low (2012)
J R Soc Interface 9, 136-146
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Bayesian design strategies for synthetic biology.
C. P. Barnes, D. Silk, and M. P. H. Stumpf (2011)
Interface Focus 1, 895-908
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Mentoring Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Students via a Team Effort.
I. Karsai, J. Knisley, D. Knisley, L. Yampolsky, and A. Godbole (2011)
CBE Life Sci Educ 10, 250-258
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Leaf-trait variation explained by the hypothesis that plants maximize their canopy carbon export over the lifespan of leaves.
R. E. McMurtrie and R. C. Dewar (2011)
Tree Physiol 31, 1007-1023
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Vaccination Alters the Balance between Protective Immunity, Exhaustion, Escape, and Death in Chronic Infections.
P. L. F. Johnson, B. F. Kochin, M. S. McAfee, I. M. Stromnes, R. R. Regoes, R. Ahmed, J. N. Blattman, and R. Antia (2011)
J. Virol. 85, 5565-5570
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Enhancing Interdisciplinary Mathematics and Biology Education: A Microarray Data Analysis Course Bridging These Disciplines.
Y. V. Tra and I. M. Evans (2010)
CBE Life Sci Educ 9, 217-226
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Using the Principles of BIO2010 to Develop an Introductory, Interdisciplinary Course for Biology Students.
K. E. Matthews, P. Adams, and M. Goos (2010)
CBE Life Sci Educ 9, 290-297
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
How to Build a Course in Mathematical-Biological Modeling: Content and Processes for Knowledge and Skill.
A.-M. Hoskinson (2010)
CBE Life Sci Educ 9, 333-341
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
The Crossroads between Biology and Mathematics: The Scientific Method as the Basics of Scientific Literacy.
I. Karsai and G. Kampis (2010)
BioScience 60, 632-638
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Plug-and-play inference for disease dynamics: measles in large and small populations as a case study.
D. He, E. L. Ionides, and A. A. King (2010)
J R Soc Interface 7, 271-283
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Simulation-based model selection for dynamical systems in systems and population biology.
T. Toni and M. P. H. Stumpf (2010)
Bioinformatics 26, 104-110
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Model criticism based on likelihood-free inference, with an application to protein network evolution.
O. Ratmann, C. Andrieu, C. Wiuf, and S. Richardson (2009)
PNAS 106, 10576-10581
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Enhancing Interdisciplinary, Mathematics, and Physical Science in an Undergraduate Life Science Program through Physical Chemistry.
D. P. Pursell (2009)
CBE Life Sci Educ 8, 15-28
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Optimal Function Explains Forest Responses to Global Change.
R. C. Dewar, O. Franklin, A. Makela, R. E. McMurtrie, and H. T. Valentine (2009)
BioScience 59, 127-139
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
From the two-dimensional Th1 and Th2 phenotypes to high-dimensional models for gene regulation.
H.-J. van den Ham and R. J. de Boer (2008)
Int. Immunol. 20, 1269-1277
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
The circulation of the ocean and its variability.
C. Wunsch (2008)
Progress in Physical Geography 32, 463-474
   PDF »
Evaluating Public Health Responses to Reintroduced Smallpox via Dynamic, Socially Structured, and Spatially Distributed Metapopulation Models.
J. W. Glasser, S. O. Foster, J. D. Millar, and J. M. Lane (2008)
Clinical Infectious Diseases 46, S182-S194
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
The Effects of Age, Thymectomy, and HIV Infection on {alpha} and {beta} TCR Excision Circles in Naive T Cells.
C. van den Dool and R. J. de Boer (2006)
J. Immunol. 177, 4391-4401
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Extinction cascades and catastrophe in ancient food webs.
P. D. Roopnarine (2006)
Paleobiology 32, 1-19
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Quantifying the Contribution of Defective Ribosomal Products to Antigen Production: A Model-Based Computational Analysis.
S. Bulik, B. Peters, and H.-G. Holzhutter (2005)
J. Immunol. 175, 7957-7964
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Disease contact tracing in random and clustered networks.
I. Z Kiss, D. M Green, and R. R Kao (2005)
Proc R Soc B 272, 1407-1414
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
The Croonian Lecture 2004 Risk: food, fact and fantasy.
J. R. Krebs (2005)
Phil Trans R Soc B 360, 1133-1144
   Abstract »    Full Text »    PDF »
Points of View: The Interface of Mathematics and Biology: Intuition and Innumeracy.
R. Brent (2004)
CBE Life Sci Educ 3, 88-90
   Full Text »    PDF »

To Advertise     Find Products


Science Signaling. ISSN 1937-9145 (online), 1945-0877 (print). Pre-2008: Science's STKE. ISSN 1525-8882