Physics lecture kicks off winter series in Aspen |

Physics lecture kicks off winter series in Aspen

ASPEN – This week, theoretical physicists at the Aspen Center for Physics will join population geneticists and experimental biologists to discuss quantitative model systems of population and evolutionary dynamics in a conference titled “Populations, Evolution and Physics.”

At 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, several biophysicists will share insights from the conference at the informal Physics Cafe in the lobby of the Wheeler Opera House, followed by a short video celebrating 25 years of winter conferences and public lectures.

The scientists on hand will try to explain the world of physics in language that laymen can understand.

Among them will be Clifford Johnson, a particle physicist from the University of Southern California, and biophysicist Charles Steven, who are general members of the Aspen Center for Physics and understand the sometimes-testy partnership between biology and physics.

And at 5:40 p.m. Wednesday, University of Arizona scientist Joanna Masel will present a lecture titled “Biological Evolution: What It Is and What It Isn’t.”

The field of biophysics boomed when the volume of data generated by the human genome project overwhelmed old ways of studying biological systems. Up until that time, biologists worked by analyzing changes one at a time – an approach that is still applied to some research. But today, it is physicists-turned-biologists who are making sense out of the unprecedented amount of data being generated in all areas of biology.

Three general areas in which physics is applied to biology are making tools, building models, and developing physics-style theories. Making tools includes assembling and managing DNA and finding the meaningful three-letter words of “genes” in the “garbage” of DNA sequences. It is the theoretical underpinning of genetic engineering.

The second and largest area in which physics is applied to biology is in building models. If, for example, we can understand how an embryo develops from egg to baby, we can apply our understanding to the building of robots or computer programs.

Charles F. (Chuck) Stevens of the Salk Institute, Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory is working in the third area, developing physics-style theories in biology. Stevens has been coming to the Aspen Center for Physics since 1988, has been a member since 1998, and a trustee from 2001 to 2007. In an interview last summer, he shared a description of his work.

“The main interest of the public is in applying biophysics to curing diseases. But the basic research must come first. Watson and Crick were doing basic research when they uncovered DNA sequencing. Only 50 years later, their basic research is impacting medicine and agriculture. Basic research will come first and then will come innovations in energy, in adapting to and controlling climate change, in new areas not yet anticipated. But first, the basic research must be done and that is the work of theoretical physicists.”

For more information, call (970) 925-2585.

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