Sunday, March 10, 2013

Physics versus biology

When I was in high school, my physics teacher drew a massive rectangle that took up almost the entire black board and proclaimed, "this is physics". He then drew a little rectangle inside the first one and proclaimed, "this is biology". The he made a tiny little smudge of chalk on one of the sides of the 'biology' rectangle and said, "this is chemistry, so you all should study physics because all the other major division of science are just sub-disciplines of physics".

Amusing as his performance was, there are many aspects of biology that cannot be directly or indirectly inferred from our understanding of physics. Notably, we would have never formulated the theory of evolution, which underpins our modern understanding of biology, if we had to rely on progress in physics alone. Clearly though, physics is important in shaping the evolution of particular traits. I've written many times about physics in biology, such as swimming in sharks (here), flight in albatross (here), the hammer strike of mantis shrimp (here) and the visual capability of giant and colossal squid (here and revisited here).

Almost all organisms that detect and use light do so in the same part of the spectrum, which is pretty much the same part of the spectrum we see in. Although many use slightly shorter wavelengths in the ultraviolet or slighter longer wavelengths in the infrared, no organisms that we know of use the huge parts of the spectrum in the radio, x-ray and gamma ray wavelengths. I've wondered why this is before, but Mathew Cobb wondered it out loud and got some interesting answers.

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