Overview: Introduction

In this class both the topics we teach and the contexts in which we teach them are different from those of traditional intro physics. You will work through many examples of physics relevant to living systems. Our hope is that when you get to a professional level, either in biology research or in health care, you’ll find that the thinking tools you learn here will be valuable in your research or developing your diagnoses. Essentially, learning physics will enable you to see living systems from an additional perspective. Life is not simply a biochemical system or a signaling pathway; life also involves physical machinery constrained by the laws of physics. In this class you will focus on physics at the convergence with biology, where physical, chemical, and biological principles all come into play. In addition, in your future professional lives, many of the instruments that you will be using to collect data will rely heavily on physics. To understand what you can reliably conclude from those instruments – and what their limitations are – you’ll need to understand some physics.

A central topic for the first semester is the concept of motion, and the difference between coherent, directed motion and the random motion that occurs at the molecular level will be a primary theme. For example, you will discover and explore random motion from all angles: you will learn the physics of random motion, explore how it leads to the principle of diffusion that is used in chemistry, and figure out how random motion and diffusion affect how cells communicate. Our understanding of how physical, chemical, and biological principles can converge is still in its infancy, but it is clear that a convergence of knowledge from the physical sciences, life sciences, and also engineering will be critical and enhance life on earth, from improving health care to securing our energy and food supply [ See e.g. The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering]

Physical laws apply to everything in the universe from quarks and atoms to galaxies. So, learning the physical laws that describe how an object moves, what forces it experiences, or what energy it has is important for all sciences and engineering. But how important are physical laws really for biology? You might ask why you should care about motion and forces, the main topics of the first semester. Do biological organisms really operate near their physical limits, or do genomics and proteomics and metabolomics rule? These questions have driven biophysics and quantitative biology research in the past decade with surprising results: Many characteristics of living things can be traced to physical constraints which provide a simple framework to think about the living world. You will see a number of examples in this class. 

We have carefully chosen the topics for this class after extensive negotiation with biologists. We want this physics class to explicitly connect to what you are learning in all the scientific disciplines you have to study to learn to be a biologist or health-care professional -- biology, chemistry, and math.

  • The pre-requisites: To be able to put physics in a biological context, this course is situated to be taken after you have learned some college level biology, chemistry, and mathematics.  We expect you to have taken the following:
    • Biology – some introduction to cellular biology, genetics, and evolution.
    • Chemistry – an introduction to basic chemistry including atoms, molecules, bonding, etc.
    • Math – basic calculus (derivatives and integrals) and an introduction to probability
  • The structure of the class: This class is set up to build on what has been learned over the past few decades about effective teaching methods. The main result of this research can be summarized in two principles:
    • What matters for your learning is not what the teacher does or what’s in the text but what you, the student, do with it.  What matters is what goes on in your head. We will provide activities and environments that can help you effectively learn to use the the physics you are learning.
    • What matters for physics (and really for all of science) is not primarily learning facts or even protocols or procedures (though you will need to know both) but learning how to think with them and use them creatively. This means that both the activities and evaluations (quizzes, exams) in this class will not be simple recall, plug-and-chug, or find-the-keywords essays. Even on exams, we will be expecting you to think!  

Both the content and the structure of the class reflect these principles. As a result, in this class we will include lots of

  • biological applications at the nano, micro, and macro level (molecules, cells, and organisms).
  • active “doing” things as opposed to passive “listening and reading” things.

In order to understand why we have chosen to set up the class the way we have, you may read our discussion of the nature of science in the following:

When you are done, we suggest you go on to the section:

There, we discuss what has been learned about your brain by cognitive- and neuro-scientists over the past half century and its powerful implications for the best ways to learn. The approach we take in this class is structured to optimize this kind of learning.

Joe Redish, Wolfgang Losert, Ben Dreyfus 1/25/2015

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Last Modified: March 7, 2019