I was sad to learn that Steven Vogel passed away yesterday. He was a giant in the field of biomechanics, and his books on the subject are brilliant, fascinating, and fun. I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve run into who, like me, have found these books deeply inspirational. The first one I read was Life’s Devices: The Physical World of Animals and Plants, which remains a favorite, full of well-explained examples of how life is “engineered” — how the mechanics of fluid flows, forces on beams, velocities, and viscosities dictate and illuminate how living things work. Why can’t bacteria swim like dolphins? How do prairie dogs keep from suffocating in their burrows? Why do big animals need such thick bones? Vogel’s writings spanned a remarkably diverse set of subjects, from elephants to ants to fungal spores to plants, and conveys to the reader a deep sense of how physics and biology are intimately related.The books occupy a curious middle-ground between books for specialists and books for the non-scientist general reader; they are warm, conversational, and don’t require advanced knowledge of physics or biology, but they do contain “real” science, with equations when necessary.
It’s very rare to find books that really change the way one looks at the world, but Vogel’s did just that, showing that woven amid the remarkable diversity exhibited by the living world run unifying threads of physical function. And just as we develop a deeper appreciation of the planets by understanding the simple laws that govern their motions, we gain a deeper appreciation of our fellow organisms by understanding the forces that guide them.
In my own work, I don’t study anything macroscopic. My lab looks a lot at larval zebrafish, a few millimeters long, but even here we focus on the microscopic bacteria within them. My group’s work on membranes is also very small-scale. Nonetheless, the perspective that we can gain insights into these systems by considering their material properties and spatial structure is central to our work, and to a large swathe of modern biophysics. It is, however, not a universal belief, and there’s a constant tension with the view, often implicit, that cataloging the pieces of living systems, especially the genes that “cause” various processes or the networks that link genes together, is equivalent to understanding life.
I’m happy that a few years ago I met Steven Vogel, at a conference on education at the interface of physics and biology. He was energetic and very friendly. We corresponded a bit by email afterwards; I was keen to get his thoughts on an article I was writing on the biophysics-for-non-science-majors course I had developed. (I’ve assigned several excerpts from his books when teaching the class.) His comments were warm and insightful. I’ve thought often of elaborating on materials I’ve written for the class to write a popular book on biophysics. I’ve also thought that if I were to do so, it would be great to get Professor Vogel’s comments — sadly, it is now too late for that. I do hope that someday I’ll write something substantial, and that it will have at least some of the spirit and charm of Vogel’s books.
Today’s illustration: a sea turtle I painted a few weeks ago. The entry for “sea turtle” in the index of Life’s Devices:
sea turtle. See turtle, sea, y’see.
The text explores the hull shapes of boats and buoyant animals, including baby sea turtles.