Friday, May 16, 2008

A Firm Foundation For Aspiring Biophysicists

In January 1989, John Wikswo of Vanderbilt University wrote a review in Physics Today (Volume 42, Pages 75–76) about the 2nd edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. His review began
In our introductory physics courses as well as in our daily use of physics, we regularly encounter the early work of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Thomas Young, Jean Poiseuille, Julius Mayer, Hermann von Helmholtz, William Gilbert and Jacques d’Arsonval. Many of us fail to recognize that the first four were physicists who in the course of their studies of physical systems made major contributions to the life sciences, while the remainder were physicians whose fundamental contributions to physics were largely motivated by their interest in biology and medicine. In the past 40 years, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to a remarkable number of physicists, including Hugo Theorell, Georg von Bekesy, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Alan Hodgkin, Andrew Huxley, Haldan Hartline, Max Delbruck, Rosalyn Yalow, Allan Cormack and Geoffrey Hounsfield. There must be a multitude of reasons why each of these modern-day physicists chose a career that spanned both physics and the life sciences, but it is unlikely that any single book, with the possible exception of Erwin Schrodinger’s What is Life?, could have been the stimulus. Why are there so few books that successfully span physics, medicine and biology?

While there are excellent texts, treatises and reviews of medical and radiological physics and biophysics, none of these provides the breadth and depth required of a guidebook for a physicist or biologist desiring to explore, possibly for the first time, the realm where physics joins medicine and biology. The problem in part is that such a book should develop simultaneously both the physics and the biology without assuming extensive prior knowledge of either, and yet should explore the subject with sophistication and quantitative rigor. In 1977, I was confronting the dilemma of finding no suitable text for the very first physics course I had been assigned to teach, an introductory medical physics course for undergraduate premedical students, when a friend of mine from the Mayo Clinic told me that Russell Hobbie of the University of Minnesota was writing just the book I needed. For two years my students and I learned from typed manuscripts kindly provided by Hobbie, and my colleagues and I have been using the first edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology ever since then. This year, we can greet our students with the second edition.

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