Joseph Henry Laboratories of Physics, and the
Lewis–Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics
Professor Bialek can be reached through his assistant, Ms Amie Weisert, aweisert@Princeton.EDU or 609-258-7014.
I am interested in the interface between physics and biology, broadly interpreted. A central theme in my research is an appreciation for how well things “work” in biological systems. It is, after all, some notion of functional behavior that distinguishes life from inanimate matter, and it is a challenge to quantify this functionality in a language that parallels our characterization of other physical systems. Strikingly, when we do this (and there are not so many cases where it has been done!), the performance of biological systems often approaches some limits set by basic physical principles. While it is popular to view biological mechanisms as an historical record of evolutionary and developmental compromises, these observations on functional performance point toward a very different view of life as having selected a set of near optimal mechanisms for its most crucial tasks. Even if this view is wrong, it suggests a theoretical physicist's idealization; the construction of this idealization and the attempt to calibrate the performance of real biological systems against this ideal provides a productive route for the interaction of theory and experiment, and in several cases this effort has led to the discovery of new phenomena. The idea of performance near the physical limits crosses many levels of biological organization, from single molecules to cells to perception and learning in the brain, and I have tried to contribute to this whole range of problems.
To find out more:
A complete list of publications, with links to pdf files of most papers.
Publications organized by research topic, with links to commentaries (needs to be updated!).
Some favorite papers, with commentary (in pdf; also needs updating)
Currently on sabbatical at the University of Rome, La Sapienza.
Usually I enjoy lecturing on the blackboard, which allows for spontaneity but leaves no written record. For some larger venues I do use prepared graphics, however. Here are links to some (fairly) recent ones …
More perfect than we imagined: A physicist’s view of life. This was a public lecture in the Science on Saturday series, sponsored by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Aimed at high school students, I tried to give an overview of ideas about optimization and the physical limits to various biological functions, from the regulation of gene expression in embryonic development to reasoning about randomness.
Optimization principles in neural coding and computation. This was a tutorial lecture (2 hrs) at the annual conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, held in Vancouver, December 2004. For more information about the conference series see http://nips.cc/ . I gave a related talk (shorter, with slightly different emphasis) at the new Crick-Jacobs Center for Theoretical Biology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
From photons to perception: A physicist looks at the brain. This was the 25th public lecture at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, delivered 1 September 2004. The link is to an online version of the talk, with audio. For more about the KITP (including its public lecture series) see http://www.kitp.ucsb.edu/ .
The other half of western civilization: Communicating a mathematical view of nature. This was part of a symposium on quantitative education in the biological sciences, held in December 2004. David Botstein and I described our progress thus far in teaching an integrated introductory science curriculum (CHM/COS/MOL/PHY 231-4).