• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!


What Physics can do for Biologists

Page history last edited by Ben Dreyfus 12 years, 10 months ago

Class content >Introduction to the class


As biologists and pre-health care majors, you might find it strange that you've been asked to take a physics course. What good can learning physics do a biologist or doctor? Why bother?


Despite the fact that physics and biology -- at least at the introductory level -- tend to approach the world in different ways, the skills and competencies you develop in both sets of classes will be important to you at the professional level and even in your upper-division classes. Here are some of the skills we will focus on in our physics class that should be useful for you.


  1. Problem solving -- modeling and mechanistic reasoning:
    Whatever field of science you go into (and in many non-science-based professions as well), most of your actual work will not be simply recalling something you have learned and carrying out an automatic procedure. Any of those sorts of jobs are increasingly being done by machines. People are needed to figure out things that are not trivially obvious. Looking at a situation that is different from any you might have seen before, finding the similarities and differences, figuring out the knowledge and tools you need to resolve it, that's problem solving. A lot of what you will learn in this class will be through problem solving. Not just learning something and giving it back, but learning something and figuring out how to use it in non-obvious situations.

  2. Discourse -- learning to talk the talk:
    A critical idea in any science is that we use the community of scientists in a discipline to get a broader, more complete, and more accurate view of the world than any one individual can get. We're each limited in our experience and knowledge. Every scientific discipline relies heavily on the interaction of scientists with each other -- from planning and analysis discussions of research groups, to peer review of published papers, to teams of specialists in a hospital reviewing the case of a patient. In this class we will do a lot of in-class group work, both in discussion section and lecture. And your homework will include complex problems that will be too hard and time-consuming for a single individual to do by themselves. We hope you will find groups to work with. The point of this is not for you to "share the load" but for you to learn to "talk the talk" -- to learn to ask questions of each other until you all understand what's going on better than either of you would individually.

  3. Stakes in the ground -- reasoning from principle:
    One of the things that physics has been really good at is finding universal (or near universal) principles that hold in a very wide variety of circumstances; things like energy conservation, conservation of charge, and Newton's laws of motion. These provide "stakes in the ground" for tying your safety net of linked knowledge to -- things you can trust and be sure of. But be careful! You'll be learning to do this here, but also to see that "basic principles" as applied in a real situation depend on the context and on assumptions that you might make. As a result, they can look different in different cases -- but seeing the connections and the basic principles can help you organize and make sense of a lot of complex knowledge in a coherent way.

  4. Quantification of experience -- mathematization, estimation, and scales:
    Increasingly today, biology and medicine are becoming more quantitative. Whether you are considering thermo-regulation of dinosaurs, electric forces across a cell membrane, or the interpretation of a large scale study on the value of a new drug, the researcher or doctor needs to understand the math and be able to interpret the implications of the math. Learning to use math in science (rather than just as pure math) can be quite tricky. Adding a physical interpretation to our symbols can actually change the way we think about the math. Physics is a good place to learn how to do this since you can start with situations that are close to your everyday experience. Besides learning how to use and interpret equations, in physics we often spend an effort to learn to understand different scales and to estimate quantities based on our personal knowledge.

  5. Multiple-representation translation
    One of the things that all sciences do is to represent the complex information that they convey in a variety of forms -- words, equations, pictures, graphs, and animations. The tricky thing is to learn to create a single enriched physical picture in your mind that blends all these different representations, linking them together. Physics is a great place to begin to do this since it is very rich in multiple representations, even in physical situations which seem reasonably simple -- like a ball rolling down a ramp. Since the physical situation is easy to visualize, the extra complexity of learning to interpret multiple representations is not too hard to handle.

  6. Understanding measurement
    Whether you are going on to a research career, a career in the health professions, or any other scientifically oriented career, you will be relying heavily on measurement and data. Unfortunately, one of the things we learn in science is that no data is perfectly reliable. Every experiment or measurement includes some model, both of the system being measured and of the process yielding the measurements. Understanding how measurement works -- and therefore what the measurement tells you, when it can be trusted, and when it can go astray -- is very important to a practicing scientist. Physics is a good place to get experience with this since even simple systems can involve complex issues of measurement, allowing us to focus on understanding measurement. 


Of course all of these skills will also be developed in your upper-division biology classes and in your post-graduate training. But physics is a great place to get started on all of these since physics bores down to underlying simple principles and universal constraints. The physics we are learning here is, in the end, rather simple. But learning to see that it is simple can be extremely difficult!


Joe Redish 7/11/11


Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.