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Life and the Art of Physics

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Physics Today this month offers free access to two special features: an article examining how physics sets limits for life and an extraordinary online tribute to the life of famed physicist Mildred Dresselhaus.

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 2, 2017 -- You might have considered earthly life dawning within a sort of primordial, biochemical soup, or perhaps you’ve updated this vision to consider smoky, sulfurous hydrothermal vents as auspicious locales rich with energy and chemicals for forging organic life. But have you contemplated the physics that governs how life forms, perpetuates and adapts?

“The laws of life,” a feature article in the March issue of Physics Today, available at, is a stimulating exploration of how fundamental and universal principles of physics shape life and its success. In addition, an extraordinary tribute to the life of Mildred "Millie" Dresselhaus -- the renowned MIT physicist celebrated for her discoveries of the physics and chemistry of carbon -- appears on the magazine’s website. Dresselhaus passed away last week, and the online tribute contains comments by many of her colleagues and former students expressing their appreciation for her inspiring impact on their lives. The Physics Today online tribute includes a link to the recent GE commercial that honors Dresselhaus’ achievements and example.

Both articles are available for free from Physics Today, the world's most influential and closely followed magazine devoted to physics and the physical sciences community.

The Physics of Biology

In “The laws of life,” astrobiologist Charles Cockell, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, takes readers on a contemplative journey along the path physics lays down for biology. Starting off (relatively) big, Cockell discusses the question of why animals don’t have wheels, laying down the parameters that would disfavor these circular extensions of the body. First, wheels can surmount objects no larger than their radius, thereby making a poor showing in comparison to legs. That doesn’t mean that advanced technologists like humans are the only ones who seek the wheel; Cockell points out that on flat, dry plains, dung beetles make part of their living by shaping and rolling balls of dung.

Cockell also finds broad illumination by going into the physics of the miniature and, for example, looks at why carbon stupendously outclasses silicon as a potential life keystone. He grants that contingencies may have a role in the evolution of life, but argues that physics will tightly constrain the outcome of any evolutionary experiment.

Tribute to Dresselhaus

Additionally, on the Physics Today website, read about the life of pioneering physicist Mildred "Millie" Dresselhaus, who passed away Feb. 20, 2017 at age 86. Dresselhaus was the first woman to be a tenured engineering professor at MIT, in 1968. She was known as the queen of carbon because of her world-renowned studies on carbon structures, which helped lead to discoveries of fullerenes (e.g., buckyballs), carbon nanotubes and graphene. The Physics Today article on Dresselhaus includes a short introduction followed by more than a dozen tributes from her colleagues and former students. See



Physics Today is the flagship publication of the American Institute of Physics, and it includes a mix of in-depth feature articles, news coverage and analysis, and fresh perspectives on scientific advances and ground-breaking research. See


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Julia Majors
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