For Defending the Body, Physics Has a Game Plan

By Siegfried, Tom | Science News, January 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

For Defending the Body, Physics Has a Game Plan


Siegfried, Tom, Science News


Ordinarily it's a good idea not to confuse a physicist with a physician. One is a student of the laws of nature, the other is a healer of the flaws of biology. But every once in awhile nature's laws can illuminate biology's flaws, and physics can offer a valuable supplement to pharmacies.

That's especially true when coping with biological complexity requires quantification. Physicists have long known that logically simple principles underlie the complex phenomena of ordinary experience. For the motion of a single particle, Newton's laws (with Einsteinian corrections if needed) can answer any question you'd like to ask. If huge numbers of particles are bouncing around, the simplicity of the laws is masked by the multitude of motions.

Fortunately for much of the modern world, physicists pondering the gulf between lawful simplicity and real-life complexity have developed a method for mass predictability. Known as statistical mechanics (more colloquially, statistical physics), this approach depends on the reliably average behavior that emerges from untrackable interactions among individuals. Scientists use statistical mechanics to analyze chemical reactions, the behavior of gases, the properties of materials and even patterns in stock trading and traffic jams. …

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