So Simple a Beginning

My friend Raghuveer (Raghu) Parthasarathy (author of the blog The Eighteenth Elephant) recently published a biological physics book titled So Simple a Beginning: How Four Physical Principles Shape Our Living World. Here is an excerpt from his introduction.

I’ve already hinted at the view of nature… this book expands upon, which I identify as biophysical. The term implies a unification of biology and physics. It encapsulates the notion that the substances, shapes, and actions that constitute life are governed and constrained by the universal laws of physics, and that illuminating the connections between physical rules and biological manifestations reveals a framework upon which the dazzling variety of life is built. The notion of universality is central to the utility of physics, and to its appeal… Biophysics extends to the living world the quest for unity that lies at the heart of physics.

So, what are these four principles that Raghu says shape our living world?

  • Self-Assembly: “the idea that the instructions for building with biological components-whether molecules, cells, or tissues-are encoded in the physical characteristics of the components themselves.”
  • Regulatory Circuits: “The wet, squishy building blocks of life assemble into machines that can sense their environment, perform calculations, and make logical decisions.”
  • Predictable Randomness: “The physical processes underlying the machinery of life are fundamentally random but, paradoxically, their average outcomes are reliably predictable.”
  • Scaling: “Physical forces depend on the size and shape in ways that determine the forms accessible to living, growing, and evolving organisms.”

So Simple a Beginning is a very different book than Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. SSaB is an introductory book for the general public; IPMB is an intermediate textbook for upper-level undergraduates in the sciences. SSaB examines life from the molecular scale to organs and organisms; IPMB focuses more on tissue-scale physiology and up, with only passing mention of molecular biology and biochemistry. SSaB has no math; IPMB has equations on nearly every page. SSaB has no end-of-chapter homework problems; one of IPMB’s strengths is its large collection of exercises for the reader. SSaB is elegantly and beautifully written; IPMB’s prose is workmanlike, nothing too graceful but adequate for the job. Finally, SSaB contains dozens of Raghu’s charming drawings and paintings; IPMB’s figures tend to be competent but not artistic. I’m gonna send out a strongly worded letter to whoever’s in charge of distributing talent. No one should have the ability to write well and draw skillfully. Raghu does both. That’s cheating.

I’ll end with the final paragraph of Raghu’s introduction. He quotes Darwin’s famous last paragraph of On the Origin of Species. He probably wanted to title his book This View of Life but Stephen Jay Gould already claimed that phrase for his series of essays about evolution. Instead, Raghu took So Simple a Beginning. Raghu’s writing reminds me of Gould, one of my favorite authors. He writes like Gould would have written had Gould been a physicist.

As interesting as these topics and examples may be, their cumulative effect is greater than the sum of their parts. Biophysics transforms the way we look at the world. At the end of On the Origin of Species, Darwin writes:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

I hope to convince you that Nature has a grandeur even deeper than what Darwin discerned. Rather than a contrast between the fixed, clockwork laws of physics and the generation of endless and beautiful forms, the two are inextricably linked. We can identify the crucial “simple beginning” not as the origin of life, nor the formation of our planet, but as the primeval emergence of the physical laws that characterize our universe. The influence of these laws on life didn’t end billions of years ago, but rather shaped and continue to shape all the wonderful forms around us and within us. To discern simplicity amid complexity and to draw connections between life’s diverse phenomena and universal physical concepts gives us a deeper appreciation of ourselves, our fellow living creatures, and the natural world that we inhabit. I hope you’ll agree.

I agree. Read So Simple a Beginning. You’ll love it.

Originally published at http://hobbieroth.blogspot.com.

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Brad Roth

Brad Roth

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