Carl Woese, Biological Physicist

Recently I listened to the audiobook The Tangled Tree: A Radical History of Life, by David Quammen. The book is a wide-ranging history of molecular phylogenetics and its central character is Carl Woese. His landmark discovery was the place of the archaea in the history of life.

The discovery and identification of the archaea, which had long been mistaken for subgroups of bacteria, revealed the present-day life at the microbial scale is very different from what science had previously depicted, and that the early history of life was very different too.

Carl Woese was a complicated man-fiercely dedicated and very private-who seized upon deep questions, cobbled together ingenious techniques to pursue those questions, flouted some of the rules of scientific decorum, make enemies, ignored niceties, said what he thought, focused obsessively on his own research program to the exclusion of most other concerns, and turned up at least one or two discoveries that shook the pillars of biological thought.

How does Woese’s career intersect with Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology? As an undergraduate at Amherst College, Woese was a physics major. Therefore, he represents yet another example of a scientist who made the switch from physics to biology. Quammen doesn’t explore this aspect of Woese’s career much, so I searched for what motivated his change, what challenges he faced, and what advantages his physics background provided. An article in the Amherst Magazine provided some insight. While at Amherst, Woese

fell in love with physics while studying under William M. Fairbank, who would go on from Amherst to become “one of the great low-temperature physicists in the world.” Fairbank inspired Woese to go on for his physics Ph.D. at Yale, and it was there that Woese became fascinated with biophysics: the study of biological processes at the molecular level. After earning his doctorate in 1953, Woese took a brief fling at medical school (“I couldn’t bear to treat sick children, so I quit”), then studied at the famed Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris and worked for a while in an experimental biophysics lab operated by General Electric. By 1964 he had signed on at the University of Illinois where, ever since, he has taught microbiology and studied the molecular processes that go on inside single-celled creatures.

Woese’s education parallels my own: a physics major in college, followed a physics PhD but an increasing emphasis on applying physics to biology, then post doctoral study at a leading research center: the Pasteur Institute for Woese and the National Institutes of Health for me. William Fairbank plays a role in both of our careers, as undergraduate mentor to Woese and as academic grandfather to me; my PhD advisor, John Wikswo, had Fairbank as his PhD advisor. You could say that Woese was my academic uncle.

The article continues

Soon after arriving in Urbana-Champaign, Woese dared to tackle a fundamental problem in microbiology-a key problem that had stumped both Stanford’s C.B. van Niel and Roger Stanier of Cal-Berkeley, the leading microbiologists of the generation preceding Woese’s. The problem, in a phrase: How could you classify-or “phylogenetically order”-the vast ranks of bacterial and other one-celled organisms, given the fact that their small size and vast complexity made it extremely difficult to study and identify their anatomical and physiological features?

Years later, after gaining a worldwide reputation for solving the problem by making the key identificationsat the molecular level by sequencing genetic macromolecules and then comparing one organism’s genetic inheritance to another’s, Woese realized that his training in physics at Amherst had played a major role in his discoveries. As he later told reporters: “I hadn’t been trained as a microbiologist, so I didn’t have their bias [against classifying micro-organic species]. And my physics background had taught me the vital importance of using ‘Occam’s Razor’ whenever I could, because it had taught me that most questions-no matter how seemingly complex-usually turn out to have rather simple, straightforward answers.”

Woese returned to his physics roots later in his career. In The Tangled Tree, Quammen writes

One day in September 2002 [Woese] reached out by email to a theoretical physicist in another corner of the University of Illinois campus. Nigel Goldenfeld was an Englishman, almost thirty years younger, who had arrived in Urbana as an assistant professor, risen to full professor, and spent his middle career studying the dynamics of complex interactive systems. That included topics such as crystal growth, the turbulent flow of fluids, structural transitions in materials, and how snowflakes take shape. The common element was patterns evolving over time. Goldenfeld had never met Woese but knew him by reputation. Later, he called that first ping “the most important email of my life”… In the email, Woese now explained that he wanted to discuss-with someone-the subject of complex dynamic systems. He felt that molecular biology had exhausted its vision, he wrote, and that it needed refocusing around drastic new insights…Woese wanted a partner who understood complex interactive systems and could quantify their dynamics with brilliant math. Whether that partner knew a bacterium from an archaeon, or Darwin from Dawkins, mattered less to him.

Goldenfeld and Woese wrote several papers together, including “ Life is Physics: Evolution as a Collective Phenomenon Far From Equilibrium” (Annual Review of Condensed Matter Physics, Volume 2, Pages 375–399, 2011), in which they

discuss how condensed matter physics concepts might provide a useful perspective in evolutionary biology, the conceptual failings of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the open-ended growth of complexity, and the quintessentially self-referential nature of evolutionary dynamics.

In another paper about “ Biology’s Next Revolution” (Nature, Volume 445, Page 369, 2007) they begin

One of the most fundamental patterns of scientific discovery is the revolution in thought that accompanies the acquisition of an entirely new body of data. The new window on the Universe opened up by satellite-based astronomy has in the last decade overthrown our most cherished notions of Cosmology, especially related to the size, dynamics and composition of the Universe. Similarly, the convergence of new theoretical ideas in evolution together with the coming avalanche of environmental genomic data, especially from marine microbes and viruses, will fundamentally alter our understanding of the global biosphere, and is likely to cause a revision of such basic and widely-held notions as species, organism and evolution. Here’s why we foresee such a dramatic transformation on the horizon, and how biologists will need to join forces with quantitative scientists, such as physicists, to create a biology that embraces collective phenomena and supersedes the molecular reductionism of the twentieth century.

Woese and Goldenfeld are IPMB type of people.

Quammen concludes

In later years, as he grew more widely acclaimed, receiving honors of all kinds short of the Nobel Prize, Woese seems also to have grown bitter. He considered himself an outsider. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an august body, but tardily, at age sixty, and the delay annoyed him…He was a brilliant crank, and his work triggered a drastic revision of one of the most basic concepts in biology: the idea of the tree of life, the great arboreal image of relatedness and diversification.

Originally published at



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Brad Roth

Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.