Physics of Life: A Free Book by the National Academies of Sciences-Engineering-Medicine

“Biological physics now has emerged fully as a field of physics, alongside
more traditional fields of astrophysics and cosmology, atomic, molecular and optical
physics, condensed matter physics, nuclear physics, particle physics, and plasma

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From the preface:

“When I was a student, physicists who became interested in the phenomena of life were perceived as becoming biologists. Physicists and biologists agreed that there were productive applications of physics to biology, but the idea that living systems posed real challenges to our understanding of physics itself was not popular. I don’t think that these views were fair to the history of the field, but they were widely held. Today, much has changed, both in the substance of what has been accomplished and in the perception of these accomplishments, especially by the physics community. The search for the physics of life now is a research program rather than a fantasy, and biological physics has emerged as a branch of physics. This happened not in one dramatic moment, but through decades of progress and gradual realizations. The result is nothing less than a redrawing of the intellectual landscape, the consequences of which continue to unfold in beautiful and sometimes surprising ways. I hope that we have done justice to these remarkable developments.” – William Bialek, Chair: Committee on Biological Physics/Physics of Living Systems: A Decadal Survey

Quotations from the book:

Biological Physics

“Biological physics holds the promise of unifying ideas, seeing new and common physical principles at work in disparate biological systems. There is the hope of understanding not only particular mechanisms at work in living systems but the principles that stand behind the selection of these mechanisms. Along the way to realizing this promise, the biological physics community will develop new experimental methods that expand our ability to explore the living world, and new theories that expand the conceptual framework of physics. Success will lead to a redrawing of the intellectual landscape, likely in ways that will surprise us. Ultimately, a mature physics of life will change our view of ourselves as humans.”

Exploring big questions

What are the physics problems that organisms need to solve?

“Understanding the physics problems that organisms must solve will identify principles that can be emulated in technology, and constraints that must be obeyed as we try to harness life’s mechanisms for applications.”

How do living systems represent and process information?

“Understanding the representation and processing of information in living systems will continue to have impact on artificial intelligence, but also on our ability to control the decisions that cells make in determining health and disease.”

How do macroscopic functions of life emerge from interactions among many microscopic constituents?

“Understanding how macroscopic functions emerge from interactions among microscopic constituents will provide a framework for engineering on many scales, from designing new proteins to coordinating swarms of robots.”

How do living systems navigate parameter space?

“Understanding how living systems navigate parameter space already is having an impact on our ability to predict the evolution of viruses, including those that cause the flu and the current COVID-19 pandemic, and will define the landscape within which medical treatments can be personalized.”

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