THE BLOG

Dare to Be 100: Studies in Biologic Design

02/26/2015 01:59 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

Today I am rehearsing for a lecture to the Stanford students in their d health course tomorrow. This study is one of the most popular on campus. Its content is fascinating and fertile. It seeks to improve the human condition by conceiving ways to abet our function mechanically. Its background derives from the famous School of Engineering whose parent was Fred Terman, the acknowledged, Fortune cover, father of Silicon Valley.

I was his doctor in his declining years. Fred was important in his initiation of the innovative strategy of combining the intellectual firepower of a great university with the emerging needs of the tech industry. Hewlett and Packard were his famous early students.

But Fred was far from the first who sought to establish a physical basis in biology. In the Middle Ages increasing numbers of the Enlightenment turned to describing the human body in scientific terms, courting a fever of angst from the ruling clergy. Prime among these pioneers was Julien Offray de la Metrie (1709-1751) from Brittany. His book L'Homme Machine was viewed as heresy conceiving of mankind in purely mechanical terms. Such a depiction thereby supposedly debased mankind's higher values of spirituality and creativity and altruism.

Can a neuron generate love? Sam Harris's current career consists of trying to justify the reality that all of mankind's high values can be reliably explained by physics and chemistry. This disruptive thinking has cosmic implications. It requires a massive upgrade in classical chemistry and physics. It ranges to an amalgam between analog and digital pathways in the interpretation of how the brain works. Such brave new efforts to understanding have been characterized as a voyage into the "catastrophe of complexity."

The simplicity of yesterday's premises has been eclipsed by the recognition of the awesome complexity of nature, notably mankind. For example, the gear wheel of our metabolism, the tricarboxylic acid cycle which provides much of our energy turns, over at the mind-boggling rate of 2.66x10 to the 23rd times per minute.

The emerging field of nanotechnology lends much emphasis to the effort to grasp the physical basis of life. Machine principles apply even down to the molecule level. This is critical in learning how nano-molecular machines operate.

The biggest challenge in embedding a firm base for physicochemical biology is in tackling the difference between program driven processes and component driven processes. Much of nature operates at the component level a la Newton. But life is constantly being directed by its program via feedback loops. The surrounding environment is in perpetual intimate reaction with the organism. This rules that all parts of the body are reacting with all other parts in discreet and measurable ways. This hints at a Zen-like proposition.

As a geriatrician this whole domain fascinates me because time is such a critical component to life. Time must be integrated into any scheme that attempts to understand life.

This is what I will explore in my lecture to the students in d health at Stanford.