Denis Noble

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Denis Noble
Denis Noble.jpg
Born (1936-11-16) 16 November 1936 (age 77)
Residence UK
Nationality British
Fields Systems biology; physiology; computational biology;
Institutions Oxford University
Notable awards British Heart Foundation Gold Medal (1985); Pierre Rijlant Prize 1991 (l'Académie Royale de Médecine de Belgique); Baly Medal 1993 (Royal College of Physicians, London); Pavlov Medal 2004 (Russian Academy of Sciences); Mackenzie Prize 2005 (British Cardiovascular Society); Medal of Merit 2008 (EU-ISHR)

Denis Noble CBE FRS FRCP (born 16 November 1936) is a British biologist who held the Burdon Sanderson Chair of Cardiovascular Physiology at Oxford University from 1984 to 2004 and was appointed Professor Emeritus and co-Director of Computational Physiology. He is one of the pioneers of Systems Biology and developed the first viable mathematical model of the working heart in 1960.[1] His research focuses on using computer models of biological organs and organ systems to interpret function from the molecular level to the whole organism. Together with international collaborators, his team has used supercomputers to create the first virtual organ, the virtual heart.

As Secretary-General of the International Union of Physiological Sciences 1993-2001, he played a major role in launching the Physiome Project, an international project to use computer simulations to create the quantitative physiological models necessary to interpret the genome, and he was elected President of the IUPS at its world congress in Kyoto in 2009[2]

He is also a philosopher of biology, and his book The Music of Life challenges the foundations of current biological sciences, questions the central dogma, its unidirectional view of information flow, and its imposition of a bottom-up methodology for research in the life sciences[3]



Noble was educated at Emanuel School and University College London (UCL).[1] In 1958 he began his investigations into the mechanisms of heartbeat. This led to two seminal papers in Nature in 1960 giving the first proper simulation of the heart. From this work it became clear that there was not a single oscillator which controlled heartbeat, but rather this was an emergent property of the feedback loops in the various channels. In 1961 he obtained his PhD working under Otto Hutter at UCL.[4]

Professional Work[edit]

  • 1961—1963 Assistant Lecturer in Physiology, University College London
  • 1961—1963 Vice-Warden of Connaught Hall (University of London)
  • 1963—1984 Fellow and Tutor, Balliol College, Oxford. University Lecturer in Physiology
  • 1969—1970 Visiting Professor and Visiting Scientist of the Canadian MRC
  • 1971—1989 Head (Praefectus) of the Balliol College Graduate Centre at Holywell Manor
  • 1975—1985 Leader of MRC Programme Grant team
  • 1983—1985 Vice-Master of Balliol College
  • 1984—2004 Burdon Sanderson Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology, Oxford University
  • 1984—2004 Professorial Fellow, Balliol College
  • From 2004 Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology, Oxford University
  • From 2004 Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford
  • From 2004 Director of Computational Physiology, Co-Director of e-science centre, Oxford
  • 2003-2007 Adjunct Professor Xi’an Jiaotong University, Shaanxi province, China
  • From 2005 Visiting Professor, Osaka University, Japan
  • 2009-2017 President, International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS)
  • From 2011 Editor in Chief - Interface Focus, published by the Royal Society


Over 450 articles in academic journals, including Nature, Science, PNAS, Journal of Physiology, Progress in Biophysics & Molecular Biology; Many articles in national press;

Author or editor of 11 books, including:

Awards and recognition[edit]

His major invited lectures include the Darwin Lecture for the British Association in 1966, the Nahum Lecture at Yale in 1977 and the Ueda lecture at Tokyo University in 1985 and 1990. He was President of the Medical Section of the British Association 1991-92.

In 1979 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was elected an Honorary Member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1988 and an Honorary Fellow in 1994, an Honorary Member of the American Physiological Society in 1996 and of the Japanese Physiological Society in 1998. In 1999 he was awarded a CBE.

He has honorary doctorates from Sheffield University (2004), the Université de Bordeaux (2005) and the University of Warwick (2008).

He is an Honorary Foreign Member of the Académie Royale de Médecine de Belgique (1993), and received the Pavlov Medal of the Russian Academy of Sciences (2004).

He plays classical guitar and sings Occitan troubadour and folk songs (OxfordTrobadors). In addition to English, he has lectured in French, Italian, Occitan, Japanese and Korean.[7]

Views on reductionism[edit]

His 2006 book The Music of Life examines some of the basic aspects of systems biology, and is critical of the ideas of genetic determinism and genetic reductionism. He points out that there are many examples of feedback loops and "downward causation" in biology, and that it is not reasonable to privilege one level of understanding over all others. He also explains that genes in fact work in groups and systems, so that the genome is more like a set of organ pipes than a "blueprint for life".

He contrasts Dawkins's famous statement in The Selfish Gene ("Now they [genes] swarm ... safe inside gigantic lumbering robots ... they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence") with an alternative view: "Now they [genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence". He then suggests that there is no empirical difference between these statements, and says that they differ in "metaphor" and "sociological or polemical viewpoint".[8]

He argues that "the paradigms for genetic causality in biological systems are seriously confused" and that "The metaphors that served us well during the molecular biological phase of recent decades have limited or even misleading impacts in the multilevel world of systems biology. New paradigms are needed if we are to succeed in unravelling multifactorial genetic causation at higher levels of physiological function and so to explain the phenomena that genetics was originally about."[9]

Denis Noble at a meeting on Systems Biology at Chicheley Hall, August 2013

Principles of Systems Biology[edit]

Noble offers 10 Principles of Systems Biology:[10]

  1. Biological functionality is multi-level
  2. Transmission of information is not one way
  3. DNA is not the sole transmitter of inheritance
  4. The theory of biological relativity: there is no privileged level of causality
  5. Gene ontology will fail without higher-level insight
  6. There is no genetic program
  7. There are no programs at any other level
  8. There are no programs in the brain
  9. The self is not an object
  10. There are many more to be discovered; a genuine ‘theory of biology’ does not yet exist

Video Lecture on the 10 principles

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Biography, Denis Noble homepage.
  2. ^ Denis Noble Elected President of IUPS
  3. ^ How Central Is the Genome? Review by Eric Werner of The Music of Lifein Science 10 Aug 2007:317(5839)pp.753-754 doi:10.1126/science.1141807
  4. ^ Dennis Noble (2006). The Music of Life, ISBN 0-19-929573-5
  5. ^ Music of Life Website
  6. ^ Selected Papers of Denis Noble CBE FRS, The: A Journey in Physiology Towards Enlightenment Website
  7. ^ Biovision Conference Programme
  8. ^ The Music of Life, pp. 12-14
  9. ^ Genes and causation by Denis Noble, doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0086 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 13 September 2008 366 (1878) 3001-3015
  10. ^ Noble,D. Claude Bernard, the first systems biologist,and the future of physiology Experimental Physiology (2008)Published online 19 October 2007 expphysiol.2007.038695v1

External links[edit]