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Learning Biology

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Suppose you are a physicist, mathematician, or engineer who wants to change your research direction toward biology and medicine. How do you learn biology? Let’s assume you don’t quit your day job, so you have limited time. Here are my suggestions.

  1. Read The Machinery of Life (2nd edition), by David Goodsell. I discussed this book a few weeks ago in this blog. It is visual, easy to read, not too long, cheap, and doesn’t get bogged down in details. It’s a great introduction; this is where I would start.
  2. If you haven’t had an introductory biology class, you might consider taking this online biology class from MIT. It is free, it has homework assignments and quizzes so you can assess your learning, and you can work at your own schedule. For those who prefer an online class to reading a book, this is the thing to do.
  3. If you would prefer reading an introductory biology textbook, a popular one is Campbell Biology by Reece et al., now in its 10th edition. The MIT online course mentioned above and the introductory biology classes here at Oakland University use this book. Its advantages are that it covers all of biology and it is written for introductory students. Its disadvantages are that it is expensive and long. I am not an expert on the different intro biology textbooks; there may be others just as good.
  4. I like to learn a subject by studying its history. If you want to try this, I suggest: The Double Helix by James Watson (of Watson and Crick) and The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson. Watson’s book is a classic: a first-person account the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is well written, controversial, and should be read by anyone interested in science. The Eighth Day of Creation is longer and more comprehensive, but it is a fantastic book.
  5. The textbook Physical Biology of the Cell by Phillips et al. was written by physicists trying to learn biology. Also from a physicist’s point of view are Biological Physics and Physical Models of Living Systems, both by Philip Nelson. These books do not cover all of biology, but a physicist may like them.
  6. I learned a lot of biology in high school reading Isaac Asimov books. They often take a historical approach, and are qualitative, interesting, clearly written, fairly short, and cheap. I worry about recommending them because biology has progressed so much over the last few decades that these books from the 1960s are out-of-date. However, I suspect they are still useful introductions, and I suggest The Wellsprings of Life, The Genetic Code, The Human Body, The Human Brain, and A Short History of Biology.
  7. Some books from my ideal bookshelf cover parts of biology from the point of view of a physicist: Air and Water by Mark Denny, Scaling: Why is Animal Size so Important? by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, and Random Walks in Biology by Howard Berg. Steven Vogel has many books you might like, including Life in Moving Fluids, Vital Circuits, and Life’s Devices
  8. Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. To learn about evolution, read the books of Stephen Jay Gould. I enjoyed his collections of essays from the magazine Natural History. Start with Ever Since Darwin.
  9. Once you have a general biology background, what comes next? When I was in graduate school, I sat in on the Vanderbilt Medical School’s Physiology class and their Biochemistry class. These are the two courses that I encourage Oakland University Medical Physics graduate students to take. Typical textbooks are Guyton and Hall’s Textbook of Medical Physiology, now in its 13th edition, and Nelson and Cox’s Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry, now in its 6th edition. Both books are long, expensive, and detailed. If interested in cell and molecular biology, a leading text is Molecular Biology of the Cell by Bruce Alberts and Alexander Johnson. 
  10. If you have the time, you can do what Russ Hobbie did: between 1971 and 1973 he audited all the courses medical students take in their first two years at the University of Minnesota. Finally, you can always purchase a copy of the 5th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology!

If readers of the blog have their own recommendations, please add them in the comments.


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