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The Center for the Biology of Chronic Disease


Nobel Laureates on the Role of Conceptual or Theoretical Thinking in Biology

Biological understanding is the combined end product of two types of effort: collection of observations (or facts) and formation of relationships between observations. Scientists produce observations in the laboratory or clinic, and form relationships between observations in their mind (while in the lab, office, shower, ...). Both endeavors are essential. However, a great number of practicing biologists tend to dismiss the significance of conceptual or theoretical thinking in biology. In contrast, many Nobel Laureates recognize and emphasize the importance of such thinking (see below). The book on microcompetition is a product of pure thinking, and as such, does not introduce new observations, only new relationships. However, these new relationships seem to be exactly what the profession needs at the moment to overcome the looming crisis in biology (about the crisis, see Brenner below).

"There is now a crisis developing in biology, that completely unstructured information does not enhance understanding. What people want is to understand, which means you must have a theoretical framework in which to embed this." -Sydney Brenner, 2002 Winner, from an Interview by Peter Sylwan, December 12, 2002

"We've got to start thinking. We have all these individual components behaving in different ways, that interact in different ways, and we've got to somehow extract the general principles from that behavior." -Paul Nurse, 2001 Winner, from an Interview by Peter Sylwan, December 12, 2001

"All of the disciplines will benefit from this tremendous amount of information which is coming. But now we need people who can digest this information and can distill it out into new concepts." -Gunter Blobel, 1999 Winner, from an Interview by Jan Lindsten and Fatima Moumen, December 12, 1999

"Conceptually-driven research, as opposed to end-use driven research, is what is likely to yield some of the biggest benefits ... Real curiosity-led work cannot be confined by a short time-horizon." -Peter C. Doherty, 1996 Winner, from an Interview by the Australian Academy of Science, November, 1996

"The good scientist is not a drudge who collects facts like stamps and then searches these for a lucky conclusion: the good scientist chooses a problem of nature, imagines an answer, and then tests to see whether imagination has been right. In science, imagination leads the way. Without imagination, without intellectual daring, science is dead." -J. Michael Bishop, 1989 Winner, from Curiosity is the Key to Discovery..., 1992

"The rate of accumulation of knowledge or information is so vast, none of us can take it. But knowledge just adds, and you might think all this knowledge will make progress. But progress isn't based on knowledge, it's based on ideas." -Sir James W. Black, 1988 Winner, from an Interview by Joanna Rose, December 9, 2001


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