that are now distinguished as being parts of physics, chemistry, biology, and even psychology. At the beginning of the 21st century, there is a renewed sense of excitement at the interface between physics and biology. Many biologists believe that we stand on the threshold of another revolution, in which biology will become a more quantitative science, a science more like physics itself. At the same time, many physicists have come to view the profound challenges posed by the phenomena of life as much more than opportunities for the “application” of known physics to biology; rather, these striking phenomena encourage the stretching of the boundaries of CMMP and physics itself. This is leading to the blossoming of biological physics as a branch of physics, confronting the phenomena of life from the physicist’s unique point of view. The Committee on CMMP 2010 emphasizes that the challenge here is not for physicists to become biologists, but rather for the physics community to reclaim for its own some of the most inspiring parts of the natural world and to seek an understanding of living systems that parallels the profound understanding of the inanimate world.
One cannot overstate the role that the experimental methods of physics have played in contributing to the solution of problems posed by biologists, especially in the second half of the 20th century, and the committee expects that these developments will continue (see Chapter 8). Looking ahead, however, the most important opportunities at the interface of physics and biology arise because physicists bring a different perspective to the phenomena of life. Faced with these same phenomena, biologists and physicists ask different questions and expect different kinds of answers. The goal in this chapter is to communicate the excitement that now surrounds these physicists’ questions about life and to point toward the areas where the most dramatic future developments might occur. Placed in the context provided by the interactions between physics and biology in the 20th century, it is likely that these developments will reshape fundamental understanding of some of the most striking of natural phenomena and expand our ability to exploit this understanding in solving practical human problems. Given the extremely broad range of problems currently being addressed at the interface between physics and biology, the committee cannot pretend to give a complete account of the current state of the field. Instead, in what follows, it focuses on a few conceptual themes and explores how these themes run through a wide variety of phenomena. The committee’s choices are intended to be illustrative, not canonical.
One of the central problems faced by any organism is to transmit information reliably at the molecular level. This problem was phrased beautifully by Schrödinger in “What Is Life?,” a series of lectures given (in 1943) in the wake of the discovery