WHEN physicists take an interest in the living world, some biologists fear the worst. After all, goes the bad joke, there's only so much you can gain by modelling a cow as a sphere. But one crucial idea from physics may hold valuable insights into complex biological behaviour in everything from birds to gene networks. There is increasing evidence that many systems we observe in living things are close to what's called a critical point – they sit on a knife-edge, precariously poised between order and disorder. Odd as it may sound, this strategy could confer a variety of benefits, in particular the flexibility to deal with a complex and unpredictable environment.