General Overview

Almost every area of modern biology, from molecular genetics to neuroscience, is being revolutionized by large scale, quantitative experiments. At the same time, developments in statistical mechanics and dynamical systems have prepared the physics community to address theoretical questions posed by more complex systems. From observing the dynamics of single biological molecules to building theories for the neural networks that make possible our perception of the world, there are myriad challenges for physicists and biologists willing to explore the boundary between their disciplines. We believe that the opportunities extend far beyond the application of known physical principles and experimental techniques to biological systems: biology offers us examples of very special physical systems, in which the state of the system represents information that has meaning to the organism and the dynamics of the system implements an “algorithm for living” that embodies functions essential for survival in a complex, fluctuating environment. We would like to make precise these intuitive notions of meaning and functionality. Our work is animated by the belief that, as in other areas of physics, the striking qualitative phenomena of life should have correspondingly deep theoretical explanations, and that this understanding ultimately will be tested only by a new generation of quantitative experiments.

Princeton University offers a unique environment for research and education at the interface between physics and biology. The Department of Physics has several faculty members with interests in biology, the Department of Molecular Biology has several faculty members who were educated as physicists, and many traditional biology laboratories on campus have students or postdocs with physics backgrounds. Barriers between departments are low, and reduced still further by multidisciplinary initiatives such as the Lewis-Sigler Institute, the Neuroscience graduate program, and the Biophysics certificate program for undergraduates. In just the past few years, the number of Princeton faculty with interests at the physics/biology interface has grown enormously, creating new opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.