Imagine a textbook. Is it more of a tome than a book, heavy and daunting in its unwavering claim to knowledge? Most textbooks are, which is likely why so many are struggling to find relevance in today's nimble world of digital media and online education. Sure, the Internet requires some work to sift out reliable sources, but its conveniences and ubiquity are continuing to win out over printed text. As you surely know, this trend has made its way into classrooms too, where a single resource is less common than ever, and teachers are being asked to assemble courses all their own. Now back to that textbook you are imagining. Do you really want to invest yourself and your students in it? Dmitry Kondrashov's Quantifying Life makes a compelling case that in spite of all of this, you really should.
Let's step back for a moment, to the spring of 2013, when famed biologist E. O. Wilson published an essay in the Wall Street Journal with the punchline that “discoveries emerge from ideas, not number-crunching.” He touched a nerve, mine included, in arguing that scientific and quantitative intuition are not only distinct, but should be fostered separately. Quantifying Life begins with the words of Siddhartha Mukherjee: “science begins with counting.” If you too believe that the descriptive nature of science is inherently quantitative, and want to begin exploring what that really means, I implore you to give Dmitry Kondrashov's symbiosis of computation, mathematics, and biology a chance.
Weighing in at just over 400 pages, Quantifying Life manages to feel more like a novel than a textbook in your hands. And to my delight it reads more like one too, somehow managing to be conversational and approachable without sacrificing rigor. It is divided into four general sections, each involving tools to quantify more complex forms of life than the last. Kondrashov first tackles single variables, from simulating random numbers to plotting their dynamics, before scaling up to relationships between variables. The final two sections are devoted to entire systems of variables and understanding their behaviors, first with chains of variables moving discretely through time, and then finally as differential equations that describe variables changing continuously. Each of these is in turn divided into chapters with their own sets of learning goals and hands-on programming exercises to grapple with. All together these sections feel like a traditional textbook, but references between chapters act more as interesting connections than prerequisites. In this way Quantifying Life can serve as that first reference you reach for when your brow furrows just as easily as source material for that quantitative unit you've always wanted to teach. And for those just looking to curl up with a good read, its cadence and refusal to turn into dense blocks of text or incomprehensible equations will quickly have you lost in thought, conjuring up models of life and tests of reality.
Dmitry Kondrashov has written a Jack-of-all-trades textbook that is as interdisciplinary in its approach to education as it is in its broadly interdisciplinary subject matter. Most wonderfully, this remains true for more than just teachers. Are you a high school student looking to connect the dots between your science and math classes? Quantifying Life's gentle from-the-ground-up approach to integrating programming and mathematics with biology is just what you've been searching for. Are you a graduate student in the life sciences feeling that ever-stronger pull toward quantitative methods? Quantifying Life's intuition and application-oriented approach can help embolden you to bring statistical and computational rigor into your research. Or are you just secretly jealous of modelers you read about, always churning out equations and code, but get anxious at the thought of teaching yourself basic statistics? Again, Quantifying Life's conversational tone and unpretentious style can help ferry you through the foundations of modern modeling without you realizing how advanced the topics actually are. Most miraculously, no matter how you come to this book, it feels coherent and on point, somehow avoiding becoming a master of none.