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Working at the interface of physics and biology

Face to face at the interface between physics and biology

Face to face at the interface between physics and biology.

By Michael Bishop

In the 60 years since James Watson and Francis Crick brought physics and biology together to unveil the molecular structure of DNA, the boundary between the two disciplines has continued to become increasingly blurred.

In this post-genomic era, ever more principles from physics have been applied to living systems in an attempt to understand complexity at all levels.

Yet cultural differences still exist between physicists and biologists, as is made clear in a set of excellent perspectives in the journal Physical Biology, published by IOP Publishing, which also publishes Physics World.

In “Perspectives on working at the physics–biology interface”, a group of eminent scientists give their accounts of working at the interface of physics and biology, describing the opportunities that have presented themselves and outlining some of the problems that they continue to face when working across two fields with quite different traditions.

Many of the physicists recall collaborations that have yielded long-lasting friendships and significant scientific advances, yet some are more candid about their experiences of working with biologists.

Robert Austin, a physicist at Princeton University, states that he often uses biologists as a sounding board to test his ideas. If they hate the ideas and tell him not to proceed, he forges ahead.

“The more I am told I am wrong by biologists, the more likely it is that I am on the right track. Being unpopular and eating lunch by yourself is not necessarily a bad thing,” he writes.

Not all of the perspectives are as hard-hitting as that of Austin, but it is clear from reading them that many barriers still need to be broken down between physicists and biologists, specifically with regard to the terminology and language that both use to communicate with each other.

Kamal Shukla, of the National Science Foundation, believes that physicists are making a sincere effort to break down such language barriers, but more must be done on the part of biologists to learn about the principle methodologies in physics.

An example of this two-way communication is detailed in an entertaining perspective jointly written by biologist Bonnie Bassler and physicist Ned Wingreen (both at Princeton), who have been collaborating for more than 15 years after randomly bumping into each other at baggage reclaim in an airport in Mexico City on the way to a conference. The perspectives throw up examples of similarly serendipitous meetings, such as the one described by physicist Herbert Levine, from Rice University, who was reading a biology book to learn more about a micro-organism he was studying when he realized that the book’s author was actually based in the building next to his. They have now been collaborating for almost two decades.

However, Athene Donald, from the University of Cambridge, is one of a number of scientists who believes that these encounters should not be left to chance, and that more needs to be done to bring physics and biology closer together.

“Many physicists see the interface with biology as an exciting place to be. However, not all universities – certainly in the UK – teach much about this to their undergraduates, still focusing on fairly traditional areas of condensed matter,” she writes. “This absence of exposure in the undergraduate curriculum is a serious deficiency in my view.”

So, it seems a lot of work still needs to be done – on the part of researchers as well as their universities and institutions – to ensure that biological physics continues to flourish and scientific advancements on the scale of that of Watson and Crick are repeated.

Other contributors include Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin of Stanford University and Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute, who are both theoretical physicists with a broad range of biological interests.

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  1. M.Asghar

    The atomic and nuclear physics beyond the work on atoms and nuclei as such, have also to deal with some collective phenomena such as the quantal pairing and the resulting superfluidity and the different types of magnetism, but the in the biological world the quantal collectivity including the entanglement as in the photosynthesis process, has to be the most general phenomena amongst the constituents leading to consciousness, thinikg, understanding, speech and bursts of extasy of happiness and sadness. This collaboration is going to be a complex and uplifting adventure and there is no escape from it.

  2. And supposing both physics are (at present) missing something? In particular, the ‘triadic order’ that I discussed recently at a conference at Imperial (audio and slides are available at ). Triadic order is an idea introduced in the 19th century by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. In my lecture I cited the phenomenon of language as an indication of an important kind of order that regular science has yet to encompass — except perhaps for some evolutionary biologists who have discovered they have to be careful what they say (see ) <blockquote cite="Yet the mere mention of the extended evolutionary synthesis often evokes an emotional, even hostile, reaction among evolutionary biologists. … Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science."

    I’m pretty certain there’s something fundamental about triadic order and Peirce’s ‘thirdness’, and if that means having to admit in the end that there is after all something to Intelligent Design, then tough!

  3. Raghavan Jayakumar

    The article might be indicative of one problem. No biologist has been quoted on her/his interest in using physics approaches and ideas.

    The anti-reductionist crowd would have us believe that biological processes cannot be explained by physics in fundamental ways and complexity rules. It would be great to see a collaboration leading a palpable evidence to the contrary.

  4. qinyi zhao

    One great task at interface of physics and biology is the revealing of physical principles of biological processes and which has not been resolved. One problem which has been seldom stressed is whether the physical laws we are taught in university are physical laws of biological processes. In order word, the conventional physical laws which was established in fields far away from biological processes is whether validated in field of biology. Is new laws of physics is needed for our understanding of biology physically? This is theoretical foundation for my approach and axiomatic theory of biology. My opinion is that physicists need to change their thinking method or adopt new models in field of biology.

  5. Joseph Day

    X-ray imaging, crystallography for protein and DNA structure. PET scan. Nuclear spin properties for MRI. Isotopes used to study biochemical pathways. Various forms of spectroscopy. Lasers, transistors, computers and data storage. Electron microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy. Theoretical entropy to deduce the genetic code. Et cetera. Physics and biological science do not have an impasse. There are problems with some physicists new to biology. They learn the hard way biology is not a soft science.


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