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Intellectual Pursuits of Nicolas Rashevsky

Maya M. Shmailov
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Science Networks Historical Studies 55
[Reviewed by
Geoffrey Dietz
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Who is Nicholas Rashevsky? According to Shmailov, he is the “queer duck” of biology, the “Trotsky” of mathematical biology, or more simply a consummate “outsider.”

Nicolas Rashevsky was a pioneering force in the field of mathematical biology who helped establish the field as its own scientific discipline during the twentieth century. After beginning his professional life as a mathematical physicist in Kiev, he quickly found himself a political exile after backing Trotsky in the Russian Revolution. He would one day find himself an academic exile as well.

After arriving in the United States, he began to ponder problems in biology as analogs of problems in physics, e.g., can the mechanics of cell division be understood via models for the splitting of fluid droplets? While many biologists of the early twentieth century were recognizing a need for increased mathematical sophistication in their work, their efforts were typically aimed in the direction of trying to fit mathematics to empirical observations. Rashevsky entered biology with the unyielding mindset that success would mainly come about by first understanding the abstract structures or relationships within biology and then building mathematical models that fit this understanding. Afterward, one can check to see whether the model predicts the empirical data of the real world. This unwavering stand on “theory first, data second” established him as both a pioneer in the field but also a lifelong “outsider” among the established researchers in the biological sciences.

The bulk of the text covers Rashevsky’s professional successes and failures during his thirty year academic career at the University of Chicago. He succeeded in establishing the first formal program in mathematical biology, helping to developing the careers of many successful researchers, and starting a scholarly journal that still exists today. During this time he also battled with changing university administrations, colleagues who never accepted his philosophy of how to study biology, and the demands for external funding.

Shmailov’s biography of Rashevsky concentrates on these professional struggles but is not a scholarly review of his research work. With few exceptions, Rashevsky’s mathematical work is mentioned more on a philosophical level than on a technical level. As one not previously familiar with him or his work, I was left with only a vague sense of his specific research accomplishments. The book mainly focuses on the evolution of his big picture views on how one should use mathematics to study biology and sociology theoretically.

I anticipate that the book will mostly be of interest to people working in mathematical biology who are curious about some of its history and one of its twentieth century pioneers.

Geoffrey Dietz is an Associate Professor at Gannon University in Erie, PA. He is married and has six children.

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.