Learning About Biophysics

If biophysics sounds interesting and you would like to learn more so you can decide about becoming a biophysics major, the information below should be helpful. People are usually the best source of information when learning about a topic so try meeting first with the Biophysics Director of Undergraduate Studies or with some of Duke's biophysics faculty.

Videos Related to Biophysics

  • The video The Inner Life of a Cell is full of interesting examples of biophysics at the cellular and subcellular level: self-assembly of microtubules, kinesin motors that transport vesicles along microtubule railways, transcription of DNA followed by translation into proteins (how are errors avoided?), diffusion of intramembrane proteins in a liquid lipid bilayer, and so on. Most of what is shown in this movie is poorly understood, there is lots for an undergraduate to investigate!
  • Nature by Numbers, video inspired on numbers, geometry and nature, by Cristóbal Vila. See the related description of the video.
  • Powering the Cell: Mitochondria, visualization of ATP production inside a mitochondrion by same people (Biovisions) who made the The Inner Life of a Cell. Note the similarity between the rotating ATP-synthase molecules (which converts ADP to ATP) to flagellar motors.
  • Molecular Visulations of DNA, visualization of chromosome formation, translation, and transcription.
  • Movie of growing yeast cells from Professor Buchler's lab. Here a fluorescent protein has been fused to a target gene in a living cell and then time-lapse fluorescence microscopy was used to quantitatively measure the gene dynamics, such as bistability and oscillation.
  • Videos from the Firtel lab of the slime mold dictyosteliuim discoideum undergoing various collective dynamics such as aggregation. Dictyostelium is being intensely studied by biologists, physicists, and other scientists since it provides a simple example of cell differentiation followed by self-assembly into a multicellular structure as a response to environmental conditions.  More videos of dictyostelium pattern formation can be found at this site.
  • Howard Berg's research group has a fascinating collection of videos showing various single-cell animals moving about in different ways.

Articles and Talks Related to Biophysics


  • The Major Evolutionary Transitions by Eors Szathmary and John Maynard Smith, Nature 227-232 (1995). The ideas in this paper are discussed in more detail in a related book The Major Transitions in Evolution by John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary (W. H. Freeman, 1995).



Books Related to Biophysics

  • Some textbooks on biophysics (these are rather technical but give a good sense of what biophysics majors learn):
  • On Growth and Form by D'Arcy Thompson. A classic fascinating book about how one can understand many forms and structures of biological organisms using physical reasoning.
  • Engineering Animals: How Life Works by Mark Denny and Alan McFadzean. Enjoyable non-technical survey of how physics constrains and determines the structure of various multicellular organisms.
  • Life's Devices: The Physical World of Animals and Plants by Steven Vogel. An entertaining book about biomechanics.
  • What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz. A short readable thought-provoking book about how plants sense the world. Did you know that typical plants, although they lack eyes, have ten or more different kinds of photoreceptors for detecting light versus the four kinds of receptors in the human eye? What is the biophysics of that?
  • What is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger. A short older book written by one of the creators of the quantum theory, that played an important historical role in convincing many physicists to get involved with biological problems. This book helped to trigger the molecular biology revolution, as discussed in the Eighth Day of Creation.
  • Origins of Life by the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. Yet another short thought-provoking and insightful book. The discussion shows how many physics-related issues are deeply related to the question of how life began.
  • The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology, 25th Anniversary Edition by Horace Judson. A long but enjoyable book about the various research threads that led to the discovery of DNA and how DNA is read and translated into proteins, also how the structures of certain proteins were first figured out. Although the title sounds like a biology book, many of the key players had physics backgrounds and used their physics training to contribute to the discoveries that led to the molecular biology revolution.
  • Some books related to the biophysics of understanding brains:
    • Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century, a visual tour of brain structure as revealed by successive advances in chemistry, genetics, microscopy, and physics. As the physicist Richard Feynman said in his Feynman Lectures, solving problems in biology often reduce to being able to see what is going on, and this book shows how far technology (biophysics!) has evolved in allowing one to see.
    • Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastian Seung. A non-technical book written for laypeople, it is a discussion of current efforts to create the technology needed to determine the wiring diagram (connectivity matrix) of large brain regions and what success will imply. The book provides a remarkable and enjoyable overview of current neuroscience.
    • The Question for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach by Christof Koch. Can one use quantitative scientific methods to pin down and measure consciousness? If so, how?
  • An Introduction to Systems Biology: Design Principles of Biological Circuits by Uri Alon.
  • Mechanics of Motor Proteins and the Cytoskeleton by Jonathan Howard.

Websites Related to Biophysics

  • The Biophysical Society webpage, especially the list of abstracts discussed in the annual Biophysics meeting, can give you a sense of current questions that biophysicists are investigating.