by Andre on 14 May 2006
I’ve been getting a lot of mileage from Physics Today recently. It’s great to see their interest in publishing articles on biological physics and I was particularly pleased to see that this month’s cover bears a striking resemblance to our header! (You can find more of David Goodsell’s beautiful and accurate paintings on his website.)
The feature article this month is called “The Biological Frontier of Physics” and it’s well worth the read (while it’s still free). It starts with a quote from Paul Dirac that I’d never heard before:
There are at present fundamental problems in theoretical physics awaiting solution, e.g. the relativistic formulation of quantum mechanics and the nature of atomic nuclei (to be followed by more difficult ones such as the problem of life), the solution of which problems will presumably require a more drastic revision of our fundamental concepts than any that have gone before.
And it ends with some avenues for physicists to cross over to the wet side:
In the 75 years since Dirac posed his challenge, scientists have made tremendous progress in discovering and cataloging the molecules that form the basis of life. In what respect is their pursuit intellectually distinct from the “stamp-collecting” mindset of the pre-molecular era? One of the biggest opportunities provided by the explosion of biological data is the chance to revisit biological phenomena and use the quantitative interplay between theory and experiment as a measure of understanding. In this article we have outlined major areas that are amenable to the kinds of experiments and theories that physicists are used to: understanding the operational principles of molecular machines and assemblies, understanding the collective effects that give rise to the exquisite orchestration in space and time revealed by cellular life, and developing new ideas on nonequilibrium statistical mechanics that provide a suitable framework for understanding in vivo cellular processes. Clearly, biologists have already thought deeply about those issues, but we believe a physics perspective brings its own unique contributions.
In case it’s necessary, I should also say that I have the utmost respect for biologists’ work and while physicists can bring a different and complementary perspective, they remain ignorant of the work of others at their own peril.