Friday, January 1, 2010


2010 is finally here. Happy New Year! Let’s celebrate by discussing the National Research Council report BIO2010.

In 2003 the NRC released the report BIO2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. If I had to sum up the report in one phrase, it would be “they are signing our song.” In the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I incorporate many of the ideas championed in BIO2010. The preface of the report recommends
“a comprehensive reevaluation of undergraduate science education for future biomedical researchers. In particular it calls for a renewed discussion on the ways that engineering and computer science, as well as chemistry, physics, and mathematics are presented to life science students. The conclusions of the report are based on input from chemists, physicists, and mathematicians, not just practicing research biologists. The committee recognizes that all undergraduate science education is interconnected. Changes cannot be made solely to benefit future biomedical researchers. The impact on undergraduates studying other types of biology, as well as other sciences, cannot be ignored as reforms are considered. The Bio2010 report therefore provides ideas and options suitable for various academic situations and diverse types of institutions. It is hoped that the reader will use these possibilities to initiate discussions on the goals and methods of teaching used within their own department, institution, or professional society.”
The executive summary begins
“The interplay of the recombinant DNA, instrumentation, and digital revolutions has profoundly transformed biological research. The confluence of these three innovations has led to important discoveries, such as the mapping of the human genome. How biologists design, perform, and analyze experiments is changing swiftly. Biological concepts and models are becoming more quantitative, and biological research has become critically dependent on concepts and methods drawn from other scientific disciplines. The connections between the biological sciences and the physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science are rapidly becoming deeper and more extensive. The ways that scientists communicate, interact, and collaborate are undergoing equally rapid and dramatic transformations, which are driven by the accessibility of vast computing power and facile information exchange over the Internet.”
Readers of this blog will be particularly interested in Recommendation #1.3 of the report, dealing with the physics education required by biologists, reproduced below. In the list of concepts the report considers essential, I have indicated in brackets the sections of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology that address each topic. (I admit that the comparison of the report’s recommended physics topics to those topics covered in our book may be a bit unfair, because the report was referring to an introductory physics class, not an intermediate one.) Some of the connections between the report’s topics and sections in our book need additional elaboration, which I have included as footnotes.


The principles of physics are central to the understanding of biological processes, and are increasingly important in sophisticated measurements in biology. The committee recommends that life science majors master the key physics concepts listed below. Experience with these principles provides a simple context in which to learn the relationship between observations and mathematical description and modeling.

The typical calculus-based introductory physics course taught today was designed to serve the needs of physics, mathematics, and engineering students. It allocates a major block of time to electromagnetic theory and to many details of classical mechanics. In so doing, it does not provide the time needed for in-depth descriptions of the equally basic physics on which students can build an understanding of biology. By emphasizing exactly solvable problems, the course rarely illustrates the ways that physics can be applied to more recalcitrant problems. Illustrations involving modern biology are rarely given, and computer simulations are usually absent. Collective behaviors and systems far from equilibrium are not a traditional part of introductory physics. However, the whole notion of emergent behavior, pattern formation, and dynamical networks is so central to understanding biology, where it occurs in an extremely complex context, that it should be introduced first in physical systems, where all interactions and parameters can be clearly specified, and quantitative study is possible.

Concepts of Physics

Motion, Dynamics, and Force Laws
• Measurement1: physical quantities [throughout], units [1.1, symbol list at the end of each chapter], time/length/mass [1.1], precision [none]
• Equations of motion2: position [Appendix B], velocity [Appendix B], acceleration [Appendix B], motion under gravity [2.7, Problem 1.28]
• Newton’s laws [1.8]: force [1.2], mass [1.12], acceleration [Appendix B], springs [Appendix F] and related material: stiffness3 [1.9], damping4 [1.14, 2.7, 10.6], exponential decay [2.2], harmonic motion [10.6]
• Gravitational [3.9] and spring [none] potential energy, kinetic energy [1.8], power [1.8], heat from dissipation [Problem 8.24], work [1.8]
• Electrostatic forces [6.2], charge [6.2], conductors/insulators [6.5], Coulomb’s law [6.2]
• Electric potential [6.4], current [6.8], units [6.2, 6.4, 6.6, 6.8], Ohm’s law [6.8]
• Capacitors [6.6], R [6.9] and RC [6.11] circuits
• Magnetic forces [8.1] and magnetic fields [8.2]
• Magnetic induction and induced currents [8.6]

Conservation Laws and Gobal [sic] Constraints
• Conservation of energy [3.3] and momentum5 [15.4]
• Conservation of charge [6.9, 7.9]
• First [3.3] and Second [3.19] Laws of thermodynamics

Thermal Processes at the Molecular Level
• Thermal motions: Brownian motion [3.10], thermal force (collisions) [none], temperature [3.5], equilibrium [3.5]
• Boltzmann’s law [3.7], kT [3.5], examples [3.8, 3.9, 3.10]
• Ideal gas statistical concepts using Boltzmann’s law, pressure [1.11]
• Diffusion limited dynamics6 [4.6], population dynamics [2.9, Problem 2.34]

Waves, Light, Optics, and Imaging
• Oscillators and waves [13.1]
• Geometrical optics: rays, lenses [14.12], mirrors7 [none]
• Optical instruments: microscopes and microscopy [Problem 14.45]
• Physical optics: interference [14.6.2] and diffraction [13.7]
• X-ray scattering [15.4] and structure determination [none]
• Particle in a box [none]; energy levels [3.2, 14.2]; spectroscopy from a quantum viewpoint [14.2, 14.3]
• Other microscopies8: electron [none], scanning tunneling [none], atomic force [none]

Collective Behaviors and Systems far from Equilibrium
• Liquids [1.11, 1.12, 1.14, 1.15], laminar flow [1.14], viscosity [1.14], turbulence [1.18]
• Phase transitions9 [Problem 3.57], pattern formation10 [10.11.5], and symmetry breaking [none]
• Dynamical networks11: electrical, neural, chemical, genetic [none]"

1. Russ Hobbie and I have not developed a laboratory to go along with our book, so we don’t discuss measurement, the important differences between precision and accuracy, the ideas of random versus systematic error, or error propagation.

2. Some elementary topics—such as position, velocity, and acceleration vectors—are not presented in the book, but are summarized in an Appendix (we assume they would be mastered in an introductory physics class). We analyze Newton’s second law specifically, but do not develop his three laws of motion in general.

3. We describe Young’s modulus, but we never introduce the term “stiffness”. We talk about potential energy, and especially electrical potential energy, but we don’t spend much time on mass-spring systems and never introduce the concept of elastic (or spring) potential energy.

4. The term “damping” is used
only occasionally in our book, but we discuss several types of dissipative phenomena, such as viscosity, exponential decay plus a constant input, and a harmonic oscillator with friction.

5. We use conservation of momentum when we analyze Compton scattering of electrons in Chapter 15, but we never actually present conservation of momentum as a concept.

6. We don’t discuss “diffusion limited dynamics,” but we do analyze diffusion extensively in Chapter 4.

7. We analyze lenses, but not mirrors, and never analyze the reflection of light (although we spend considerable time discussing the reflection of ultrasonic waves in Chapter 13).

8. I have to admit our book is weak on microscopy: the light microscope is relegated to a homework problem, and we don’t talk at all about electron, scanning tunneling, or atomic force microscopies.

9. We discuss thermodynamic phase transitions in a homework problem, but I believe that the report refers more generally to phase transitions that occur in condensed matter physics (e.g., the Ising model), which we do not discuss.

10. We touch on pattern formation in Chapter 10, and in particular in Problems 10.39 and 10.40 that describe wave propagation in the heart using a cellular automaton. But we do not analyze pattern formation (such as Turing patterns) in detail. Symmetry breaking is not mentioned.

11. We don’t discuss neural networks, or other related topics such as emergent behavior. We can only cover so much in one book.

I may be a biased observer, but I believe that the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology does a pretty good job in implementing the BIO2010 report suggestions into a textbook on physics for biologists. With 2010 now here, it is important to remind aspiring biology students about the importance of physics in their undergraduate education.

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