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A one-way street called ‘Physics+Biology’

Physics of Medicine Institute in Cambridge

By Joao Medeiros

I’ve just spent the last couple of days in Cambridge for the opening of the new Physics of Medicine Institute (pictured right) at the Cavendish Laboratory. The new institute will serve as home for scientists who are essentially bilingual in biology and physics. The Grand Opening was part of the Physics of Living Matter conference, which displayed the rich variety of problems that biophysicists are trying to tackle: medical imaging, new materials for medical purposes, systems biology, the role of mechanical processes at the cellular level. This is stuff that could bring biology to the next level.

It’s interesting to notice that this Physics+Biology is only a one-way street. The physicists are bringing their quantitative tools to biology, not the other way around. Biologists are not quantitative scientists, and this, in the long run, is a recurrent problem in the field. Descriptive tools can only take you so far, and applied mathematics are fundamental to bring out the big picture on fundamental scientific questions. A biologist at the conference confessed to me that physicists are always needed when there is the impending need to renew the paradigm in biology.

Good things happen when physics meets biology

The whole thing is reminiscent of the time when Erwin Schroedinger first urged his physics students to move into biology, because all the problems in physics had effectively been solved. This scientific migration created, in effect, molecular biology. Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the helical structure of DNA and its relevance in biological information transfer, was actually inspired to move into biology by Schrodinger’s book “What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell”. Crick realized that the quantitative tools of physics would be well suited to face many of the fundamental challenges of biology at the time.

The nascent paradigm of the Physics of Living Matter may well be the second great migration of physicists into biology.

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  1. If this new brave biophysics will attain the same “success” as econophysics (another saviour-job idea for unemployed physicists) recently discussed on this blog, then I’m afraid even to guess what may result… Crash of economical system is painful, but in the present case the “system” we deal with is a living organism including … our own. Good luck, researchers, and God save us from their research results!

  2. Hans Elvesjö

    Physics and Biology together is the right approach
    With this materialistic approach to biology, you get money to build big institutions but you will never find out What life is, because the research must have an other approach to biology. You must see biology the dualistic way. An organism consists of ordinary matter and dark mirror matter. As long as the establishment don´t realise that, the materialistic research will come nowhere!
    Hans Elvesjö

  3. Yes, a second migration is certainly required; this time around, perhaps we have to be even more adventurous and look at applying some of the principles of quantum physics. For example, in my own field of tuberculous pathology, there is a striking parallel with Schrodinger’s cat viz. the latent TB bacilli (what I would like to call as Schrodinger’s tuberculous cat).
    V.D.Ramanathan MB, PhD (London),
    Scientist F,
    Tuberculosis Research Centre,
    Chennai, India.

  4. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  5. Thats exactly what Harold Varmus of NIH, US, urged to the physicists quite a few years back. Niels Bohr also wanted physicists to contribute to biology. The analytical and rational approach is necessary for biology to be meaningful. Ramanathan has very aptly drawn the analogy of Tuberculosis with Schrodinger’s cat here.

  6. I was also inspired by Schrodinger’s book “What is Life.” Still don’t like cats though…

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