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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: May 2010

Introduction: Biology and physics

Summary

Physics deals with natural phenomena and their explanations. Biological systems are part of nature and as such should obey the laws of physics. However correct this statement may be, it is of limited value when the question is how physics can help unravel the complexity of life.

Physicists are intellectual idealists, drawing on a tradition that extends back more than 2000 years to Plato. They try to model the systems they study in terms of a minimal number of “relevant” features. What is relevant depends on the question of interest and is typically arrived at by intuition. This approach is justified (or abandoned) after the fact, by comparing the results obtained using the model system with experiments performed on the “real” system. As an example, consider the trajectory of the Earth around the Sun. Its precise details can be derived from Newton's law of gravity, in which the two extensive bodies are each reduced to a point particle characterized by a single quantity, its mass. If one is interested in the pattern of earthquakes, however, the point-particle description is totally inadequate and knowledge of the Earth's inner structure is needed.

An idealized approach to living systems has several pitfalls – something recognized by Plato's student Aristotle, perhaps the first to attempt a scientific analysis of living systems. In the first place, intuition helps little in determining what is relevant. The functions of an organism's many components, and the interactions among them in its overall economy, are complex and highly integrated.