FULFILLING THE PROMISE

We are in the midst of an explosion of activity at the interface of physics and biology. More than in any previous generation, today’s physicists are learning “the facts of life” and asking new and different questions about these remarkable phenomena. As in other areas of physics, technically challenging, quantitative experiments are making precise our qualitative impressions of these phenomena, and this new experimental power provides fertile ground to test increasingly sophisticated theories. The breadth of this activity is enormous, from the dynamics of single molecules to perception and learning in the brain and from networks of biochemical reactions in single cells to the dynamics of evolution.

We have passed the point at which the interaction between physics and biology can be viewed as “merely” the application of known physics. Rather, the conceptual challenges of the phenomena of life are driving the emergence of a biological physics that is genuinely a subfield of physics. Guiding the growth of this field and taking full advantage of the enormous range of opportunities are major challenges for the research community, not least in terms of how it educates itself and its students (see Chapter 8). The committee is optimistic that the coming decade will see at least the outlines of a “physics of life” that brings together the many exciting threads of current research at the borders of physics and biology. The goal is nothing less than the unification in understanding of the animate and inanimate worlds, fulfilling the dreams of our intellectual ancestors.



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