I’m in Denver for the 2014 March Meeting of the American Physical Society. It’s the biggest annual gathering of physicists in the US.
As a researcher in biophysics, I’m excited every year to see more and biological physics talks. The biggest theme I saw from these talks was the use of physics equations from completely different situations (eg. percolation phase transitions, information theory) applied in interesting ways to biological systems. Here are some highlights from the talks I attended on the first day:
The session started right at 8 am, and the presenter remarked somewhat amusingly that it might be “the first phase transition of the meeting.” The irony is that the concept of a phase transition is so common in physics, and he was applying to a model of epidemiology. In fact, the main idea of his talk was the use of percolation theory to explain the spread of disease through a network of acquaintances.
This talk elaborated on an idea I am using in my own research, that there can be hysteresis in the population dynamics of a species (like pack hunters) in which the probability of each individual to survive is better when there is at least a minimum number present. Below this threshold, they are doomed to collapse. There are some signals that a collapse is near – when fluctuations become bigger and take longer to recover from. This is a prediction of dynamical systems, a fold bifurcation.
I’m a big fan of the biophysics textbook The Physical Biology of the Cell, which just came out with a second edition. The author, Robert Phillips, gave an amazing talk about the classes he teaches at Caltech for mostly non-biology science majors. He contents that science majors are looking for testable hypotheses and organizing frameworks, not just a collection of facts. He had a list of “big ideas” for biology:
- The cell as the fundamental unit of life
- The gene as the unit of heredity
- Evolution over time by natural selection
- The universality of biochemistry in living things
He talked about having his students cross-breed mutant fruit-flies and then sequence their DNA. Overall, a very interesting approach towards making biology “harder” as a hard science.