As the world celebrates Charles Darwin, who was born 200 years ago, physicists can be forgiven a certain jealousy at the spotlight being placed on his profound legacy. But physicists have in fact had a huge impact on biology – no more so than in helping to discover the structure of DNA and in developing medical-imaging techniques like MRI. The July issue of Physics World marks those achievements and examines at some of the ways in which current ideas in physics are still changing biology.
Features in this issue include a close look at how physics is informing our understanding of cells and of the brain, while Paul Davies, a physicist, astrobiologist and director of BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, suggests there are tentative signs that life itself may have arisen as a result of physicists’ long-cherished theory of quantum mechanics.
Many of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger, hoped that their theory, which proved so successful in explaining non-living matter, could one day explain living matter too. But although quantum mechanics can explain the sizes and shapes of molecules — and how they are bonded together — no clear-cut "life principle" has emerged from the quantum realm.