Robin McKie, writing on the Guardian’s Science Desk blog (Notes & Theories), remarks on the fact that Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate for Medicine, is about be installed as president of the Royal Society at the end of November. From the Nov. 12, 2010 posting,
Paul Nurse has a modest way with his ideas. “Are you like me when you read books on relativity?” he asks. “You think you have got it and then you close the book, and you find it has all slipped away from you. And if you think you have trouble with relativity, wait till you take on quantum mechanics. It is utterly incomprehensible.” Not a bad admission for a Nobel prizewinner.
The point for Nurse is that biology is facing a similar leap into the incomprehensible as physics did at the beginning of the 20th century when the ordered world of Newtonian theory was replaced by relativity and quantum mechanics. [emphasis mine] Now a revolution awaits the study of living creatures.
There is a video of Paul Nurse talking about biology as a system on the Guardian site or you can take a look at this video (part 1 of 8 for a discussion on physics and unification theories that Nurse moderated amongst Peter Galison, Sylvester James Gates Jr., Janna Levin and Leonard Susskind, at the 2008 World Science Festival in New York).
I find Nurse’s idea about biology facing some of the same issues as physics particularly interesting as I once found a piece written by a physicist who declared that science at the nanoscale meant that the study of biology was no longer necessary as we could amalgamate it with the study of chemistry and physics, i.e., we could return to the study of natural philosophy. About a year later I came across something written by a biologist declaring that physics and chemistry could be abolished as we could now fold them into the study of biology.
As I understand it, Nurse is not trying to abolish anything but merely pointing out that our understanding of biology may well undergo the same kind of transformation that physics did during the early part of the 20th century.