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Go With the Flow: Physicist Sees Parallels in Water's Movement and Life's Evolution

Candle smoke transitions from straight, laminar flow to confused, turbulent flow. How and why aren't well understood. Nigel Goldenfeld sees parallels between such physical processes and the evolution of life.
Gary Settles
/
Wikimedia Commons
Candle smoke transitions from straight, laminar flow to confused, turbulent flow. How and why aren't well understood. Nigel Goldenfeld sees parallels between such physical processes and the evolution of life.

Nigel Goldenfeld sees patterns everywhere in the natural world. The physicist from the University of Illinois is a member of its top-ranked Condensed Matter Theory group, and studies how patterns evolve in time, “be they snowflakes, the microstructures of materials, the turbulent flow of fluids, geological formations, or even the spatial organization of microbes.”

Goldenfeld is part of a long tradition of physicists jumping in to tackle questions in biology. In the past, physicists have been integral players in major advances, including early research on the nature of DNA. Biology, says Goldenfeld, is a much more complex area of study than physics, but physics can help to solve mysteries in biology.

“The illusion that physicists have done so much because they’re so great and so on, I think that’s completely wrong,” he says. “It’s just that we [physicists] choose to work on very easy problems.”

But when physicists do turn their attention to patterns in biology, they can use their models to help guide experiments.

“Putting a physicist and a biologist together, you can do things that neither would be able to do on their own,” he says. “If the physicist who is prepared to understand the biology,” he added.

Some of Goldenfeld’s work is to look at the very beginnings of life on earth, which he describes as a soup of organisms with very porous boundaries.

“Think of it as some blobby things that are constantly sucking each other up and eating each other and swapping pieces around and so on.”

Early life certainly didn’t work very well, he says. “Think about early automobiles. Early automobiles were rickety old things whose top speed was 10 miles and hour and stuff fell off them all the time.”

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.