Physics 362: Biophysics


Prof Eric Corwin
374 Willamette Hall


TuTh 10:00 – 11:50 am, 110 Willamette Hall

Office Hours

Monday 2-4 pm, or by appointment, Willamette 374.
You are strongly encouraged to come to office hours, either with course-related questions, or just to chat.

Course Description

Physics and Biology are deeply intertwined.  Universal laws of mechanics, thermodynamics, and electrostatics, as well as the physical properties of biological materials, guide and constrain living systems.  Biology, conversely, provides abundant examples of self-organized functional materials that inspire physical scientists.  This course will explore the subject of biophysics, focusing especially on molecular and cellular scales, at which the consequences of physical laws governing entropy and organization are particularly profound.  We will develop a familiarity with the terminology and techniques of modern molecular biology as needed during the course.

Course Structure

  • Conceptual Questions. Each class will begin with a conceptual question intended to probe your knowledge and understanding.  You will be asked to work on the problem by yourself for a few minutes, then asked to discuss with your nearby classmates.
  • Lectures and Readings. To facilitate discussions, there will be required reading assignments before each class.  Lectures will focus on the areas that call for elaboration, and will also introduce and describe new topics.  In general, lectures exist to complement the out of class material, not duplicate it.
  • Problem sets. There will be weekly problem sets.  These problem sets are very important– most of what you (the student) learn in this course will be absorbed as you work on them.  Think about the derivation of every concept and equation. Review your lecture notes.  If you get stuck on a problem, don’t spin your wheels for very long. It is useful to struggle for a while, but it is a waste of your time to stare at one problem for hours.  Instead, come to office hours or talk to your classmates for help.  Students are encouraged to collaborate on homework but reminded that the work you submit should be your own.
  • Final project. Biophysics is a vibrant field, and being able to understand contemporary papers is a crucial skill. We’ll encounter this throughout the course, and will especially focus on it with a “final project” that explores some topic in biophysics beyond the “standard” material of the course.  Each pair of students will create a 15-20 minute presentation to be delivered to the class during the last week (“dead week”) of the quarter.  I will provide further details, as well as a list of suggested topics, later in the term.  Topics outside the list are also allowed.  A decision on a topic plus a list of at least three references must be completed by the end of Week 6.

Required Reading

The course will make use of readings from a variety of sources (books, articles, etc.), and will make extensive use of the following (required) textbook:

Biological Physics: Energy, Information, Life – Philip Nelson (Freeman, New York, 2003)

Additional Reading

Physical Biology of the Cell – Rob Phillips, Jane Kondev, Julie Theriot (Garland Science, New York, 2008). Another excellent book on biophysics.

Life’s Devices – Steven Vogel (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J., 1988). Chapters 1-3, 5, 9.Large-scale biomechanics and physics.

Random Walks in Biology – Howard C. Berg (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J., 1993).

Molecular Biology of the Cell (4th ed.) – Bruce Alberts, Alexander Johnson, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff,Keith Roberts, Peter Walter (Garland Science, New York, 2002).  A standard undergraduate biologytextbook, useful as a reference. This book is publicly available on-line via <>.


Final grades will be determined by performance in three components, Problem sets, Project, Midterm and Final Exam.  Further, your participation in the conceptual questions and discussions at the start of each class will be recorded and used to boost your final grade.