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Life Out of Sequence

A Data-Driven History of Bioinformatics

Thirty years ago, the most likely place to find a biologist was standing at a laboratory bench, peering down a microscope, surrounded by flasks of chemicals and petri dishes full of bacteria. Today, you are just as likely to find him or her in a room that looks more like an office, poring over lines of code on computer screens. 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.

304 pages | 19 halftones, 3 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Computer Science

History: History of Technology

History of Science


“[A] sharp and lucid work of history and anthropology of science. . . . [Stevens’s] clear and refined prose should extend the book’s readership beyond its disciplinary audiences in the social studies of science, to welcome scientists into this reading of their field’s past and present. . . . Stevens provides a highly readable telling of how bioinformatics took shape, how it works within technological and conceptual limits that change over time, and how individual, and mostly unsung, scientists made it happen. . . . An effective and enjoyable remolding of oversimplified ‘data-to-truth’ histories of science, Life Out of Sequence draws out the reciprocal impressions made by data systems and living systems on each other—and on the sense scientists make of life.”

Michael Fortun, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute | Science

“A rich and fascinating ethnographic and historical account of the transformations wrought by integrating statistical and computational methods and materials into the biological sciences. . . . The histories of biology, computing, database technology, and bioinformatic imaging all play a role in this wonderfully transdisciplinary story.”

Carla Nappi | New Books in Science, Technology, and Society

“Stevens presents engaging ethnographic fieldwork throughout the book. . . . An interesting read for life and computational scientists seeking a deeper understanding of the interdisciplinary connections of their domains.”

D. Papamichail, College of New Jersey | Choice

"Readers benefit from the book’s extensive source material, as well as from dozens of interviews with scientists who have widely divergent views on bioinformatics."


“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 in life science is undergoing fundamental and rapid change.”

Hannah Landecker, University of California, Los Angeles

“What is it like to do biology when the indispensable scientific instrument has become the computer, when biological objects are transformed into computer-compatible data, and when the manipulation of data replaces the manipulation of organisms and their parts? Life Out of Sequence is a vivid account of how the flow of massive amounts of data has fundamentally changed both the questions biologists ask and the answers they recognize. It is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the world that biologists have made for themselves and that they are making for the rest of us.”

Steven Shapin, author of The Scientific Life

Table of Contents

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
Archival Sources

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