Interview with Professor Denis Noble

Denis Noble is a British biologist who in 1960 developed a pioneering computer model of the working human heart using an “expensive and slow” mainframe computer, the Ferranti Mercury.

Having given up maths at 16, Denis — now Prof Emeritus and Co-director of Computational Physiology at the University of Oxford — had to teach himself machine code to program it.

He also had to use it between 2am and 4am, at a time when there was little competition from other researchers. But his discovery that hardware and software could be used to simulate biological organs led to the hugely important discipline of systems biology. This has enabled many further breakthroughs including the development of the drug, Ivabradine, to treat heart failure.

The Mercury took two hours to reproduce two seconds of heart rhythm. Today Denis uses a desktop PC to model far more complex systems. Recently he has been studying skeletal muscle activity to explore how an ancient Chinese herbal remedy can relieve cramp.

Denis has extended the subject’s scope to evolutionary biology. His books on systems biology have introduced the subject to a wider audience. He does not expect a virtual human in the near future, but foresees the possibility of biological entities with AI brains that could be weapons of war.

  • 1960 – develops the first viable mathematical model of the working heart and begins a life-long career as a pioneer of systems biology
  • 1993 – becomes secretary-general of the International Union of Physiological Sciences
  • 1993 to 2001 –  is is part of the team that launches the Physiome Project, an international project to use computer simulations to create the quantitative physiological models necessary to interpret the genome
  • 2006 – writes the first popular book on Systems Biology, The Music of Life: Biology beyond the Genome (OUP).
  • 2014 – is co-founder of The Third Way of Evolution, a vehicle for new voices to be heard in evolutionary science and DNA research

Interview conducted by Jane Bird on 21 September 2021 via Zoom.


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