Seeking suggestions: Less Wrong Biology 101

post by virtualAdept · 2011-05-20T15:28:03.283Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 22 comments

I’ve been a reader and occasional commenter here for a while now, but previously have not had a solid idea of what I could or wanted to contribute to the community in posting.  In light of recent comments stating an interest in more posts that offer concrete, factual information as well as remembering lukeprog’s call for such things in his Back to the Basics of Rationality post, I am considering a series of condensed posts about biology.  As someone who has spent my formal education on biologically-focused engineering (bioengineering BS, now studying bioinformatics under a chemical engineering department for my PhD) but has always had the bulk of my friends in electrical engineering, computer science, and more traditional chemical engineering, I’ve gotten used to offering such condensed explanations whenever biology works its way into a discussion.  From what I’ve seen on LW thus far, the community educational base leans more in those (non-biology) directions, so I believe this is a niche that could use filling. 

Since biology is a rather broad subject, and you could all go read Wikipedia or a textbook if you wanted a very detailed survey course, my intent is to pick targeted topics that are relevant to current events and scientific developments.  Each post would focus on one such event/Awesome New Study, discussing the biological background and potential implications, including either short explanations or links to the basics needed to understand the subject.  If there are any political ties to the subject, I will withhold my explicit opinions on those aspects unless asked in the comments. 

My questions, then, are the following:

UPDATE: Having followed the comments so far and done some preliminary outlining, I'm leaning toward a more organized progression of topics that will still tie into current interests and developments, but not be centered on them.  A bit more thought and putting ideas to text indicated that I could group the interest areas into biological categories (molecular, populations, developmental, neuro, etc) fairly easily, which would then allow for a 'foundations' post to introduce each major category, followed by posts that go over What We Know Now, Why We Care, and Where It's Going.  


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-05-20T17:26:19.268Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A lot of people would be interested in neuroscience / neurobiology, I think. (Me included, at least if it goes beyond the very basics like "neurons are connected via axons and dendrites and there are these action potentials".)

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2011-05-21T03:47:00.648Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm actually considering this as a career, so a good sequence post(s) about it and/or some links to useful reference books would be greatly appreciated.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-21T11:06:45.005Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I want to learn neuro too, and I second the request to go more in depth than the very basics. Anyone who knows about vision, in particular, please, please, talk about that.

comment by Dreaded_Anomaly · 2011-05-20T18:19:18.506Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would definitely be interested in that. (I recently took a look at back exams from a friend's neuroscience class and realized how little knowledge I actually have on the subject.)

comment by badger · 2011-05-20T16:40:13.722Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd be interested. Overall, I'd prefer a focus on foundational/technical topics than the most recent Awesome New Study, although if you can tie in both, that would be great. My past experience with biology tended to involve a bunch of technical terms being thrown at me and my eyes glazing over. Are there a handful of broad principles that constrain anticipation about biological systems or processes that you could highlight?

comment by virtualAdept · 2011-05-20T16:54:23.667Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are there a handful of broad principles that constrain anticipation about biological systems or processes that you could highlight?

There are. My thought about the current event idea for the topics would be simply to use those as a jumping-off point to talk about the foundational aspects, since otherwise I'd feel somewhat aimless as to where to start. But the way you phrased that made me think about more about how to structure a foundations only-type post, and I think I could pull at least some of that off in a way that would be useful.... I shall continue to think on this. Thanks for the suggestion!

comment by Manfred · 2011-05-20T15:40:51.780Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, sure, it sounds fun!

If you're a molecular biology person, I would be interested in an article if there are any good human efforts to design proteins, and what sort of challenges they face and what techniques they use to overcome those challenges. Or even designing whole living systems - we seem to like futurism around here, so "speculative bioengineering" could be fun.

comment by virtualAdept · 2011-05-20T16:36:26.142Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, your suggestion makes me grin. Systems biology is essentially the theme of my academic career. I will definitely write about those things; the hard part will probably be shutting up about them.

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2011-05-21T03:48:19.964Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Definitely focus more on the topics you're most passionate about, after you've given the necessary background. It will make your writing better.

comment by falenas108 · 2011-05-20T16:50:23.331Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed, this should definately done. And I am interested in the problems with designing proteins too (I think it has to do with protein folding, but I would like to learn more about it).

comment by XFrequentist · 2011-05-20T18:15:14.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

what are some topics you would like to see discussed?

The biology of aging and age-related disease.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-05-20T17:24:29.474Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is based on guessing what bioinformatics means: How close is our ability to handle information to the complexity of living things? What compromises need to be made to get relatively good predictions? What are the frontiers?

comment by rysade · 2011-05-21T03:27:50.558Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, I would like to know how far we are from really meaningful biological simulation. For example, the Blue Brain Project has marvelous ambitions, but it is trying to model biological / 'analog' processes with digital computers. Does this create fidelity problems, and would those problems matter?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-21T16:00:02.070Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm interested in how far away current technology and understanding is from simulating the most primitive existing single celled organism on a molecular or atomic level.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2011-05-20T20:40:37.510Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would love to know more about the processes by which biomass energy is transferred about the ecosystem, (the actual organic processes involved, relative efficiencies, etc.).

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-05-20T18:28:37.429Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a great idea!

Some topics that are sort of relevant to LW and overlaps enough with biology that posts focusing on the biological side of things would be interesting:

  • The brain: Much of LW is about it's abstract/computational behaviour, but what is it actually, you know, physically.
  • Prosthesis, augmented intelligence, organic computers, etc.
  • Population dynamics. Just my intuition saying I have vague memories abaut this having a bunch of interesting examples of math relevant to the singularity.
  • Nanotech is all around us, and what it has a hard or easy time doing might say a few thing about what the artificial kind will be able to do?

... Ok most of these are sort of not very much biology and kinda cheesy, but I tried.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-20T16:45:07.449Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd be interested (am slowly working my way through a Master's in Bioinformatics while trying to hold down a day job). No idea of what'd be interesting, because either I already know about it or I don't know enough to know it's interesting, IYSWIM.

comment by Friendly-HI · 2011-05-26T12:24:36.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I read the suggestion somewhere above already, but I'd also be very interested in your take on ageing. Most people around here seem to be from the technical sphere and thus they probably lack the necessary intimacy with the topic of biology and ageing to competently evaluate some of its more intricate aspects.

Specifically your evaluation of Aubrey de Grey's viewpoint and his methods would interest me a lot, if that is something you've looked into and feel competent commenting on. I've read around here that some people donate to his SENS foundation, but if one is not a biologist you can't really evaluate the approach of his methods. I've tried to evaluate his competency by listening to the arguments of his critics and was largely struck by how poor they were - but that in itself is obviously just an indicator and not an evaluation of his approach.

I'm careful to not be biased about this, but let's face it - probably everyone here wants Aubrey to succeed. Still I'm skeptical if the human body is really as malleable as he suggests it is... I'm thinking of problems like protein folding and whatnot.

Your thoughts would be much appreciated.

comment by outlier · 2011-05-22T13:27:54.809Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I always wanted to know more about genetics, but didn't have enough time to study it. Basic tutorial + good links + outline of current state-of-art would be interesting to me. I do understand that it's a bit off-topic for this forum however.

comment by atucker · 2011-05-20T16:59:34.551Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In terms of what I imagine most people would be curious about:

  • How is biology research done?

  • How is medication developed?

  • Why do some things work for some people?

  • What are genes? Why are they so important? Are they me? <- the last one's a stretch...

For LW to know:

  • What overlap does bioinformatics have with normal probability theory? What methods are common?

  • How does it compare to other engineering fields?

comment by Eneasz · 2011-05-20T16:22:17.119Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This would be great! I'd love to know more about sleep, but I hear there's not much known about it anyway.

comment by virtualAdept · 2011-05-20T19:44:15.263Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What constitutes 'more?' I ask because it seems to be a fairly frequent topic on the site (people trying to do less of it), and I don't want to write a primer post that ends up being rehash for 90% of readers.