Number 413 (Story #3), February 4, 1999 by Phillip F. Schewe and Ben Stein|
THE ROLE OF PHYSICS IN BIOLOGY is a venerable one. The lead article in the 14 January issue of Nature describes how the borrowing continues, chiefly through application of versatile sensors and data management in such areas as genetic sequencing. But more than technology transfer is at work, and several new multidisciplinary institutes are being built (Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, and Chicago) to cross-fertilize physics and bio/medical research Nature, 7 Jan 1999). One of the leaders at Stanford, for example, is Steven Chu, who has used his pioneering mageto-optic traps methods to study the physics of DNA molecules. The biology/physics connection was one of the themes of last week's AAAS meeting in Anaheim, where Hans Frauenfelder of Los Alamos described his motto as "Ask not what physics can do for biology but what biology can do for physics." To illustrate his point he cited the use of research on "energy landscapes" (essentially energy-level diagrams depicting transitions among various possible folded geometries, or conformations, of proteins) in the study of physics systems as "spin glasses," in which magnetic atoms are dispersed in an alloy with their spins oriented at haphazard angles. The evolving relation of physics and biology is even being felt at the high school level, where some schools are reversing the traditional biology-chemistry-physics sequence of courses, the better to introduce certain concepts, such as energy and force, needed for understanding the new higher biology (New York Times, 24 Dec 1998).