This is a book – Biological physics: energy, information, life for life-science students who are willing to use calculus. This is also a book for physical-science and engineering students who are willing to think about cells. I believe that in the future every student in either group will need to know the essential core of the others’ knowledge.
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In the past few years I have attended many conferences and seminars. Increasingly I have found myself surrounded not only by physicists, biologists, chemists, and engineers, but also by physicians, mathematicians, and entrepreneurs. At these conferences nobody ever stands up and says, “Hey, is this nanotechnology or biomathematics?” because nobody really cares. These people
come together to learn from each other, and the traditional academic distinctions between their fields are becoming increasingly irrelevant to this exciting work. In this book – Biological physics: energy, information, life I want to share some of their excitement.
I began to wonder how this diverse group managed to overcome the Tower-of-Babel syndrome. Slowly I began to realize that while each discipline carries its immense load of experimental and theoretical machinery, still the headwaters of these rivers are manageable, and come from a common spring, a handful of simple, general ideas. Armed with these few ideas, I found that one can understand an enormous amount of front-line research. In this book – Biological physics: energy, information, life I want to explore these first common ideas, ruthlessly suppressing the more specialized ones for later.
I also realized that my own undergraduate education had postponed the introduction of many of these ideas to the last year of my degree (or even later), and that many programs still have this character: We meticulously build a sophisticated mathematical edifice before introducing many of the Big Ideas. My colleagues and I became convinced that this approach did not serve the needs of our students. Many of our undergraduate students get started on research in their very first year and need the big picture early. Many others create interdisciplinary programs for themselves and may never even get to our specialized, advanced courses.
In this book Biological physics: energy, information, life I want to present some of the big picture in a way accessible to any student who has taken first-year physics and calculus (plus a smattering of high-school chemistry and biology), and who is willing to stretch. When you’re done you should be in a position to read current work in Science and Nature. You won’t get every detail, of course. But you will get the sweep.
When we began to offer this course, we were surprised to find that many of our graduate students wanted to take it too. In part this reflected their own compartmentalized education: The physics students wanted to read the biology part and see it integrated with their other knowledge, the biology students wanted the reverse, and so on. To our amazement, we found that the course
became popular with students at all levels from sophomore to third-year graduate, with the latter digging more deeply into the details. Accordingly, many sections in this book – Biological physics: energy, information, life have “Track–2” addenda addressing this more mathematically experienced group.
Physical science vs life science At the dawn of the twentieth century it was already clear that, chemically speaking, you and I are not much different from cans of soup. And yet we can do many complex and even fun things we do not usually see cans of soup doing. At that time people had basically no correct ideas for how living organisms create order from food, do work, and even
compute things—just a lot of inappropriate metaphors drawn from the technology of the day. By mid-century it began to be clear that the answers to many of these questions would be found in the study of very big molecules. Now, as we begin the twenty-first century, ironically, the situation is inverted: The problem is now that we have way too much information about those molecules!
We are drowning in information; we need an armature, a framework, on which to organize all those zillions of facts.
Some life scientists dismiss physics as ‘reductionist’, tending to strip away all the details which make frogs different from, say, neutron stars. Others believe that right now some unifying frame- work is essential to see the big picture. My own conviction is that the tension between the ‘de- velopmental/historical/complex’ sciences and the ‘universal/ahistorical/reductionist’ ones has been enormously fruitful, and that the future belongs to those who can switch fluidly between both kinds of brain.
Setting aside philosophy, it’s a fact that the past decade or two has seen a revolution in physical techniques to get inside the nanoworld of cells, tweak them in physical ways, and measure quanti- tatively the results. At last, a lot of physical ideas lying behind the cartoons found in cell biology books are getting the precise tests needed to confirm or reject them. At the same time, even some mechanisms not necessarily used by Nature have proven to be of immense technological value.
Free PDF Books: Biological physics: energy, information, life – 2007