A Física Biológica Chega à Maioridade

sexta-feira, abril 14, 2023

APS News

April 2023 (Volume 32, Number 4)

Opinion: Biological Physics Comes of Age

Once an awkward confrontation between disciplines, biological physics is having its moment — and showing that life is not just a mess.

By William Bialek | March 16, 2023

Physics and biology were not always separate disciplines. In the 18th century, controversy about “animal electricity” proved foundational for the understanding of electricity more generally. In the 19th century, explorations of vision and hearing intermingled with the emerging understanding of optics and acoustics. In the 20th century, the chasm between physics and biology grew wider, but there were spectacular bridges. Most famously, the work that launched our modern view of life — structures of DNA and proteins, theories of base pairing and the genetic code — was done primarily in physics departments.

The revolutionary successes of (re-)connecting physics with biology in the mid-20th century completely changed how we think about life, and even changed how biologists’ work is organized. What emerged first was called molecular biology, and over the course of a generation the ideas and methods of molecular biology — grounded in physics — touched almost every part of the biological sciences. In contrast, physics itself was left relatively untouched.

Although the interaction of physics and biology did not immediately change the trajectory of physics, a small stream of physicists continued to be fascinated by the phenomena of life. I began to be (dimly) aware of all this as a student in the late 1970s. For me, the things biologists talked about were interesting, but the way they talked about them was unsatisfying. Physics was the other way: the style of thinking was attractive, and the theories elegant and powerful, but I never had an original idea about problems in the field’s traditional core. It was clear that physicists were doing all sorts of interesting things connected to the living world, but these efforts didn’t cohere into a community and certainly not into a recognizable branch of physics. We went to meetings where (mostly) we would find biologists working on the same systems, but not physicists asking the same kinds of questions.


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