ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

What is Biophysics?

Updated on September 2, 2010

Biophysics is an area of scientific study in which physical principles, physical methods, and physical instrumentation are used to study living systems or systems related to life. It overlaps broadly with biophysical chemistry, which is more specialized in scope since it is concerned with the physical study of chemically isolated substances found in living organisms. Advances in Biophysics. Advances in biophysics, like advances in physics, have come about as systems have become available for accurate study. One early branch of biophysics was the geometric optics of the eye. The character of the lens of the eye, the kind of image it makes on the retina, and the ways in which the image can be sharpened are clearly physical problems. Research in this area, which has been proceeding steadily for centuries, has provided vision correction for nearly half of mankind.

In the past, living systems did not reveal many aspects suitable for physical study. A change came about in the middle part of the 20th century with a series of discoveries: the nature of nerve impulses and muscular contraction; the operation of the retina of the eye; the molecular character of genetics; the behavior and composition of viruses; and the operation of plant chloroplast. All these systems are readily studied by physical means. Findings in these areas include the discovery that the eye can detect a single photon, the smallest possible amount of light; the elucidation of the structure of the genetic substance deoxyribonucleic acid (known as DNA); and a start on the symmetry relationships and methods of assembly of viruses.

Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski
Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski

Division of Biophysics

Roughly speaking, there are three major divisions of present-day biophysics. Perhaps the largest of these is molecular and cellular biophysics. This division is concerned with the structure and behavior of the molecular units that have been found to determine the life of the cell. Thus the structure of nucleic acids, of proteins, of lipids, and of polysaccharides (particularly as they are part of the architecture of the cell and form elements of nuclei, ribosomes, membranes, and cell walls) is of major interest to biophysicists.

The methods of study in molecular and cellular biophysics include the electron microscope; the absorption of light (selected as to wavelength); the ultracentrifuge, which subjects objects to greatly enhanced gravity and selects them for size, shape, and density; X-ray diffraction, which reveals regularities and symmetries in structure; as well as the study of the effects of physical stress such as heat and pressure.

Each of these methods is specialized and often involves many research workers. On occasion, the physical agent itself is the subject of study. One such subject is ionizing radiation, which in the form of X rays and gamma rays is either a potential benefit (X-ray diagnosis and cancer treatment) or hazard (radiation-induced leukemia), and so has a large field of biophysics devoted to itself alone.

A second area of biophysical study is physiological physics. This is the study of functional organs of a living system. These systems include vision, hearing, sensation in general, nerve action, muscular action, membrane action, and the accumulation of mineral deposits in bone, teeth, and eggs. Workers in these areas use specially designed electrical detection devices- often very elaborate ones. The electron microscope also is used, as well as specialized biochemical detectors.

A third rapidly growing area is biophysical instrumentation. As the knowledge of the functioning of living things (from parts of cells to human beings) is developing, so is the need for special instruments.

Thus, while electrocardiographs, used to study the form of the heartbeat, may be familiar to many, they represent only an early version of a whole range of instruments. These include, for example, whole-body radiation counters, which monitor the amount and kind of radioactivity accumulated by an individual; heart pacemakers, which maintain the heart beat when it is necessary to supplement the natural nerve impulses; and automatic amino-acid analyzers, which determine the composition of a protein in a matter of minutes. Background training in electronics is clearly important in this area.

Central to all areas of biophysical work is the use of radioactive isotopes, which are generated in nuclear reactors. Their use has accelerated by decades all these fields of discovery.

Training and Work in Biophysics

Training in biophysics can be obtained at the graduate level in most large universities in the United States, Canada, and the USSR. Undergraduate programs are offered in about 10 percent of the universities and colleges in the United States.

Biophysicists are valued in industries, in universities, and in medical research laboratories. The great majority then work in research laboratories at such institutions, but they are also in demand as administrators.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)