Quanta Magazine recently spoke with Goldenfeld about collective phenomena, expanding the Modern Synthesis model of evolution, and using quantitative and theoretical tools from physics to gain insights into mysteries surrounding early life on Earth and the interactions between cyanobacteria and predatory viruses. A condensed and edited version of that conversation follows.
What is Biological Physics?
In 1944, physicist Erwin Schrödinger published a short book, What is Life?, that changed the course of modern biology.
Could the behavior of a living organism be explained solely by physics and chemistry? Yes, it could, Schrödinger answered. "The obvious inability of present-day physics and chemistry to account for such events," he wrote, "is no reason at all for doubting that they can be accounted for by those sciences."
It's a sentiment that has lured generations of physical scientists to biology.
For the past half-century, researchers have applied the rigorous tools of physics to help answer Schrödinger's question and unravel the fundamental mechanisms of life, but some of the most exciting challenges remain.
What are we doing in Biological Physics at Illinois?
The Experimental Biological Physics Research faculty's study includes, but is not limited to single-molecule methods, single-molecule fluorescence microscopy and spectroscopy, nucleic acid and protein translocases, DNA protein interactions, molecular biology, structure and dynamics of biological macromolecules.
The Theoretical and Computational Biological Physics Research faculty's study includes such ideas as biomolecular modeling of molecular motors, multiscale modeling of pattern formation, photosynthesis, cellular mechanics, multiscale modeling of cells and bionanotechnology.