The Role of Mathematical Models in Understanding Pattern Formation in Developmental Biology

David M. Umulis, Hans G. Othmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


In a Wall Street Journal article published on April 5, 2013, E. O. Wilson attempted to make the case that biologists do not really need to learn any mathematics—whenever they run into difficulty with numerical issues, they can find a technician (aka mathematician) to help them out of their difficulty. He formalizes this in Wilsons Principle No. 1: “It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.” This reflects a complete misunderstanding of the role of mathematics in all sciences throughout history. To Wilson, mathematics is mere number crunching, but as Galileo said long ago, “The laws of Nature are written in the language of mathematics$$\ldots $$… the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word.” Mathematics has moved beyond the geometry-based model of Galileo’s time, and in a rebuttal to Wilson, E. Frenkel has pointed out the role of mathematics in synthesizing the general principles in science (Both point and counter-point are available in Wilson and Frenkel in Notices Am Math Soc 60(7):837–838, 2013). We will take this a step further and show how mathematics has been used to make new and experimentally verified discoveries in developmental biology and how mathematics is essential for understanding a problem that has puzzled experimentalists for decades—that of how organisms can scale in size. Mathematical analysis alone cannot “solve” these problems since the validation lies at the molecular level, but conversely, a growing number of questions in biology cannot be solved without mathematical analysis and modeling. Herein, we discuss a few examples of the productive intercourse between mathematics and biology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)817-845
Number of pages29
JournalBulletin of mathematical biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 30 2015

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