A Quantitative Miscellany – Introduction

In our introductory chapter, we spoke of giving a friendly alien a single publication to learn about what our society and daily lives look like.  There we noted that our favorite suggestion would be some report from the Bureau of Statistics that details everything from income to age at marriage.  Over the last five chapters, we have performed a systematic analysis of many of the key questions that one can address as part of the main substance of the bureau of statistics of the cell: how big, how many, how forceful, how fast? Of course, there are many statistics about our society that are obscure, but still interesting, such as the number of deaths from falling, an always surprising statistic given the frighteningly high numbers and surpassing the number from food poisoning, snake bites and airplane crashes combined. Similarly, there are many interesting biological quantities that defy simple categorization, and yet, deserve mention in our pantheon of bionumbers. That is the purpose of this final chapter where we bring together some important numbers that help us understand the world of the cell and that did not fit into the categories heading the other chapters.

We now turn to a quantitative miscellany of topics that runs the gamut from exploring the characteristic state of oligomerization of the many proteins that make cells tick to the “burst size” of viruses that tell us how many new viruses will erupt from an infected cell.  In each of these cases, we invite the reader to continue with the style of arguments that have been made in vignettes throughout the book and more importantly, to imagine what other interesting bionumbers would end up on their own personal quantitative miscellany.

To whet the appetite for the current chapter, we thought it would be of interest to our readers to hear something more about the statistics of the searches that are made on the BioNumbers website itself. About 200 researchers every day, from across the globe find themselves curious about a very wide spectrum of different quantities that characterize the living world. The most popular queries are independently searched for many hundred of times each year. Some of those queries fall right within the framework of our main chapters throughout the book such as how heavy is the tobacco mosaic virus, how rapid is DNA replication in humans or the microbiologist’s favorite, what is the conversion from optical density units to number of cells. But there are many other search queries that do not fit at all into the framework laid out in our various chapter headings. For example, one favorite is what is the average spacing between the origins of replication on human chromosomes?  Or, how many cells are in a colony? Finally, the number of hairs on a human head and the duration of the blink of an eye command great interest among internet searchers. For us the database searches show that the need for knowing the numbers that govern life is widespread and takes many forms. We hope to have given the reader a bit more of an overview of what these numbers are and how knowing them can lead to unexpected insights.