272 pages, 19 b/w photos, 3 b/w illustrations
Thirty years ago, biologists worked at laboratory benches, peering down microscopes, surrounded by petri dishes. Today, they are just as likely to be found in an office, poring over lines of code on computers. The use of computers in biology has radically transformed who biologists are, what they do, and how they understand life.
In Life Out of Sequence, Hallam Stevens looks inside this new landscape of digital scientific work. Stevens chronicles the emergence of bioinformatics – the mode of working across and between biology, computing, mathematics, and statistics – from the 1960s to the present, seeking to understand how knowledge about life is made in and through virtual spaces. He shows how scientific data moves from living organisms into DNA sequencing machines, through software, and into databases, images, and scientific publications.
What he reveals is a biology very different from the one of predigital days: a biology that includes not only biologists but also highly interdisciplinary teams of managers and workers; a biology that is more centered on DNA sequencing, but one that understands sequence in terms of dynamic cascades and highly interconnected networks. Life Out of Sequence thus offers the computational biology community welcome context for their own work while also giving the public a frontline perspective of what is going on in this rapidly changing field.
“What happens to biology with computerization? Hallam Stevens’s compelling ethnographic and historical narrative shows how the nature of the biological experiment has changed with the increasing use of the tools of information technology in life science and biomedicine. Life Out of Sequence traces rearrangements in the relationship between the virtual and the material as scientists work increasingly on databases rather than cells or bodies. As the book takes on the mirrored questions of the work of life and the life of work in front of the computer in the lab, the reader is brought into the world of bioinformatics, and comes to understand that this is not just a subfield of scientific activity, but a space in which the nature of knowledge production of life science is undergoing fundamental and rapid change.”
- Hannah Landecker, University of California, Los Angeles
Chapter 1: Building Computers
Chapter 2: Making Knowledge
Chapter 3: Organizing Space
Chapter 4: Following Data
Chapter 5: Ordering Objects
Chapter 6: Seeing Genomes
Conclusion: The End of Bioinformatics
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Hallam Stevens is assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.