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

  • Measurement: physical quantities, units, time/length/mass, precision

  • Equations of motion: position, velocity, acceleration, motion under gravity

  • Newton’s laws: force, mass, acceleration, springs and related material: stiffness, damping, exponential decay, harmonic motion

  • Gravitational and spring potential energy, kinetic energy, power, heat from dissipation, work

  • Electrostatic forces, charge, conductors/insulators, Coulomb’s law

  • Electric potential, current, units, Ohm’s law

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