Friday, August 1, 2014

Interview with Russ Hobbie in The Biological Physicist

In 2006, just as Springer was about to publish the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, an interview with Russ Hobbie appeared in The Biological Physicist, a newsletter of the Division of Biological Physics of the American Physical Society. Below are some excerpts from the interview. You can read the entire thing in the December 2006 newsletter.
THE BIOLOGICAL PHYSICIST: Are there any stories you have about particular physics examples you have used in the book or in the classroom that have really awakened the interest of medical students to the importance of physics?

Russ Hobbie: I cannot speak to what has triggered a response in different students. But there is one amusing story. I was working with a pediatric cardiologist, Jim Moeller, to understand the electrocardiogram. I finally wrote up a 5-page paper explaining it with an electrostatic model. When I showed what I thought was simplicity itself to Jim, he could not understand a word of it. But he finally agreed to show it to some second- year medical students. Their response: “Thanks goodness it is rational.” I think this shows the gap between our premed course and what the student needs in medical school and also the fact that the physics we love so dearly may be helpful to a medical student during the basic science years but is not so helpful later on. It also became clear to me that what we teach about x-rays and radioactivity is the only exposure to those topic that physicians will receive, unless they go into radiology!

THE BIOLOGICAL PHYSICIST: How has the book changed over its four editions? Has the way you have presented material evolved over the years?

Russ Hobbie: It is amusing to compare my explanation of the electrocardiogram in the four editions. In the first, I was thinking in terms of an electrostatic model. By the second edition, I had realized that a current dipole model was much better and had been in the literature for a long time. This has been improved even more in the 3rd and 4th editions. I am a slow learner! But as an excuse, I was confused for a long time because the physiologists called the current dipole moment “the electric force vector.”

As I have added material (such as non-linear systems and chaos) it has been necessary to remove material. For example, the first edition had 11 pages and 3 color plates on polarized light and birefringence. This was gone to save money and to make room for biomagnetism in the second edition. I wish it was still there. I did not get around to discussing acoustics, hearing, and ultrasound until the fourth edition.

THE BIOLOGICAL PHYSICIST: How would you assess the impact of the book on the field of interdisciplinary research, and on interdisciplinary education? Do you have any information on the history of how quickly it was adopted by other departments, and how it is used in other interdisciplinary programs?

Russ Hobbie: I have always hoped that a physicist without the biological background could teach from the book, and the solutions manual was written in the hope that students could use it for an independent study course. (At the request of instructors, the solutions manual is now an Adobe Acrobat file which is password-protected. Instructors can ask me or Brad for the password and give it to students if they wish.)

Many physicists are more interested in molecular biophysics than physiology- and radiology- oriented physics and find that other books better meet their needs. However, there seems to be a growing interest in the book among biomedical engineers. One teaching technique that was very successful in the early years of the course had to be abandoned while I was serving as Associate Dean, because it took too much of my time. I required the students to find an article in the research literature that interested them and then to write a paper filling in all the missing steps. They could come to me for help as often as they needed. Then, three days after they submitted the paper, I would give them an oral exam on anything that I suspected they did not fully understand. They said this was a valuable experience; my office was packed with students the week before the papers were due; and I learned a lot myself.

THE BIOLOGICAL PHYSICIST: Have you found that there is a “cultural divide” between physicists and MDs? Some people in the Division of Biological Physics describe having difficulty communicating with medical researchers. Do you ever find that?

Russ Hobbie: Absolutely. One friend, Robert Tucker, got a PhD in biophysics with Otto Schmitt and then went to medical school. Bob said that medical school destroyed his ability to reason. This was probably an extreme statement, but it does capture the “drink from a fire hose” character of medical school. On the other hand, if I am having a myocardial infarct, I would prefer that the clinician taking care of me not start with Coulomb’s law!

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