Seeing Emergent Physics Behind Evolution

The physicist Nigel Goldenfeld hates biology — “at least the way it was presented to me” when he was in school, he said. “It seemed to be a disconnected collection of facts. There was very little quantitation.” That sentiment may come as a surprise to anyone who glances over the myriad projects Goldenfeld’s lab is working on. He and his colleagues monitor the individual and swarm behaviors of honeybees, analyze biofilms, watch genes jump, assess diversity in ecosystems and probe the ecology of microbiomes. Goldenfeld himself is director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute for Universal Biology, and he spends most of his time not in the physics department at the University of Illinois but in his biology lab on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Goldenfeld is one in a long list of physicists who have sought to make headway on questions in biology: In the 1930s Max Delbrück transformed the understanding of viruses; later, Erwin Schrödinger published What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell; Francis Crick, a pioneer of X-ray crystallography, helped discover the structure of DNA. Goldenfeld wants to make use of his expertise in condensed matter theory, in which he models how patterns in dynamic physical systems evolve over time, to better understand diverse phenomena including turbulence, phase transitions, geological formations and financial markets. His interest in emergent states of matter has compelled him to explore one of biology’s greatest mysteries: the origins of life itself. And he’s only branched out from there. “Physicists can ask questions in a different way,” Goldenfeld said. “My motivation has always been to look for areas in biology where that kind of approach would be valued. But to be successful, you have to work with biologists and essentially become one yourself. You need both physics and biology.”

Quanta Magazine recently spoke with Goldenfeld about collective phenomena, expanding the Modern Synthesis model of evolution, and using quantitative and theoretical tools from physics to gain insights into mysteries surrounding early life on Earth and the interactions between cyanobacteria and predatory viruses. A condensed and edited version of that conversation follows.

Physics has an underlying conceptual framework, while biology does not. Are you trying to get at a universal theory of biology?

God, no. There’s no unified theory of biology. Evolution is the nearest thing you’re going to get to that….

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