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Physicist explores life’s 'most beautiful phenomena'

William Bialek
Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics
Theoretical physicist William Bialek is the 2015 Hans Bethe Lecturer in Physics.

Are there theoretical principles that have the power and generality of physics, yet encompass the full complexity and diversity of life’s “most beautiful phenomena” – phenomena such as sounds that cause our eardrums to vibrate by less than the diameter of an atom?

Theoretical physicist William Bialek will explore this question as the 2015 Hans Bethe Lecturer in Physics in a public lecture, “More Perfect than We Imagined: A Physicist's View of Life” Wednesday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Schwartz Auditorium, Rockefeller Hall.

Known for his contributions to the understanding of coding and computation in the brain, Bialek and his collaborators have shown that aspects of brain function can be described as essentially optimal strategies for adapting to the complex dynamics of the world, making the most of available signals in the face of fundamental physical constraints and limitations. He has followed these ideas into early events of embryonic development and processes by which all cells decide when to read information stored in their genes.

Recently, Bialek and his colleagues have shown how the collective states of biological systems – the activity in a network of neurons, or the flight directions in a flock of birds – can be described using ideas from statistical physics, connecting quantitative detail with new experimental data.

Bialek is the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics and a member of the multidisciplinary Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. He also serves as Visiting Presidential Professor of Physics at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he has helped launch the Initiative for the Theoretical Sciences.

He received his doctorate in 1983 in biophysics from the University of California, Berkeley. The author of the textbook “Biophysics: Searching for Principles” (2012), Bialek is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Physical Society. He has received the Presidential Award for Distinguished Teaching and the Phi Beta Kappa Prize for undergraduate education at Princeton.

As part of the Hans Bethe Lecture series, Bialek will also present the physics colloquium, “Are Biological Networks Poised at Criticality?” Monday, March 16, at 4 p.m. in Schwartz Auditorium; and a Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics seminar, “Predictive Information and the Problem of Long Time Scales in the Brain,” Tuesday, March 17, at 4 p.m. in 700 Clark Hall.

The Hans Bethe Lectures, established by the Department of Physics and the College of Arts and Sciences, honor Bethe, Cornell professor of physics from 1936 until his death in 2005. Bethe won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1967 for his description of the nuclear processes that power the sun.

Linda B. Glaser is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences

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