Biological Physics

Twenty-five to seventy-five years ago, a scientist working at the intersection of physics and biology — a biophysicist — would, more likely than not, have been making tools, such as electron microscopes, for biologists to use. With its former connotation of physicist as tool-maker, the term “biophysics” may not be as appropriate to describe today’s current research efforts at the intersection of physics and biology as other terms that have been variously suggested: “theoretical biology,” “fundamental biology,” “living matter physics,” or “biological physics.”

The last term is favored by the first KITP permanent member to focus on a physics approach to biology — Boris Shraiman — to describe his own research interests and community. According to Shraiman, who declines a request to define the term, what “biological physics” means is being defined by what biological physicists are now doing.

Not only Shraiman’s appointment, but also KITP programming efforts focusing on biological questions, signal the Institute’s full engagement with this rapidly evolving physics sub-discipline. As the new century unfolds, biological physics is likely to become more and more important if there is indeed real meaning to the concept of a theory of biology. 

Boosting KITP programming efforts in biological physics is a generous gift by Gus Gurley, a Santa-Barbara-based entrepreneur and member of the KITP Director’s Council. The Gurley gift directly supports the Distinguished Fellows in Biophysics program.

The articles on this and the following three pages attempt to understand the new mix of physics and biology mostly through the musings and examples of practitioners. Shraiman was trained and worked as a condensed matter theorist before being seduced by biology. KITP postdoctoral fellow Ila Prasad Fiete made the transition from condensed matter to neuroscience much earlier in her career than did Shraiman — mid-way through graduate school. Arnold Levine is a senior molecular biologist with a current penchant for hiring physicists and mathematicians into his theory research group. William Bialek, an organizer of the recent Brain workshop, has been interested in biology from a physics perspective throughout his scientific career.


KITP Newsletter, Fall 2005