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Can a biologist fix a radio?

This is a re-post from another blog by Rod Carvalho; here is the original link.


Here’s a rather interesting and thought-provoking paper: Can a Biologist Fix a Radio? (PDF – 469 KB), by Yuri Lazebnik. The paper is not exactly new, but it’s news to me. It’s all about how experimental biologists would try to find out how a radio works. The article suggests that an engineering-like approach would lead to a deeper understanding of how cells work.

An excerpt:

Conceptually, a radio functions similarly to a signal transduction pathway in that both convert a signal from one form into another (a radio converts electromagnetic waves into sound waves). My radio has about a hundred various components, such as resistors, capacitors, and transistors, which is comparable to the number of molecules in a reasonably complex signal transduction pathway. I started to contemplate how biologists would determine why my radio does not work and how they would attempt to repair it. Because a majority of biologists pay little attention to physics, I had to assume that all we would know about the radio is that it is a box that is supposed to play music.

How would we begin? First, we would secure funds to obtain a large supply of identical functioning radios in order to dissect and compare them to the one that is broken. We would eventually find how to open the radios and will find objects of various shape, color, and size. We would describe and classify them into families according to their appearance. We would describe a family of square metal objects, a family of round brightly colored objects with two legs, round-shaped objects with three legs and so on. Because the objects would vary in color, we will investigate whether changing the colors affects the radio’s performance. Although changing the colors would have only attenuating effects (the music is still playing but a trained ear of some people can discern some distortion), this approach will produce many publications and result in a lively debate.

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