Readings in Biophysics, part I

I’m asked fairly often to suggest things to read on the topic of biophysics, for people new to the field or just curious about it. Two weeks ago, for example, I gave an informal talk — more like a discussion & conversation — for the local Society of Physics Students (undergraduate physics majors). It was fun, especially because it involved discussing broad questions like

  • ‘What is condensed matter physics?’ — a term most had heard of, but whose meaning was unclear. I illustrated the general philosophy of condensed matter physics by noting that one can perform calculations about a single iron atom until one is blue in the face, and yet never discover that a chunk of iron is magnetic. Interesting phenomena arise from interactions.
  • What are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ condensed matter physics? These terms were totally unfamiliar. Physicists in general do an atrocious job of educating physics students about what contemporary physics is. I pointed out the mysteries of mayonnaise — truly one of the most amazing substances there is. How can a collection of liquid droplets (oil) in another liquid (water) behave like a solid?
  • What is biophysics? More on this later.


But to return to the main point of this post: Since one of my motivations for blogging is to have easily available text that I and others can refer to, I thought I’d list useful or interesting readings in biophysics. I’ll break this into parts.

Useful or interesting readings in biophysics

Part 1: Textbooks

Back when I was teaching myself about biophysics, there weren’t any textbooks on the topic.  Tossing trilobites off a cliff or poking mammoths with a stick were the only ways we could learn about the intersection of physics and biology. This isn’t quite true: there were books about the “structural biology” end of biophysics (determining protein structures, etc.), but nothing much about things like DNA packing, Brownian ratchets, the statistical mechanics of self-assembly, etc. — the “condensed matter” side of biophysics. Now, however, there are three excellent textbooks, each written by giants in the field:

Biological Physics: Energy, Information, Life by Philip Nelson (2003).  A biophysics textbook designed for both undergraduates and graduate students, with clear descriptions of the statistical mechanics underlying many biological phenomena. It’s very well written and thoughtfully organized, with excellent exercises. (There’s a newer edition that I haven’t looked at.)

Physical Biology of the Cell by Rob Phillips, Jane Kondev, Julie Theriot, and Hernan Garcia (2009; new edition 2012).  Also excellent, and also intended for both undergraduates and graduate students. The title mirrors the standard undergraduate textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell, aiming to similarly span all the key phenomena underlying cellular function. It’s larger and more sprawling than Nelson’s book, which could be an advantage or disadvantage depending on how structured one likes one’s textbooks.

Biophysics: Searching for Principles by William Bialek (2012). This new graduate level biophysics textbook looks fascinating. It’s approach is information-centric, using noise, fluctuations, and other statistical-mechanical concepts to explore the performance and robustness of phenomena like developmental pattern formation, chemotaxis, and signaling. I haven’t read much of it yet, unfortunately — it’s on my list of things to do! The introductory chapter is here:

Coming up (hopefully soon!):

Part 2: Other technical books

Part 3: Popular books

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One comment on “Readings in Biophysics, part I

  1. […] continue writing on useful or interesting readings in biophysics — Part I, a few weeks ago, dealt with textbooks.  There are many technical or scientific books that either […]

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