Models of yesterday's science

Electricity and Magnetism in Biological Systems. First edition - Biophysics. First edition
November 30, 2001

These two books address the application of physical principles to biology. Roland Glaser's book, as its title indicates, is the more ambitious, with the whole of biophysics as its target.

It is aimed at undergraduates or masters students either taking biophysics degrees or looking for biophysics within a biology degree. It is the first English edition of a German book that had reached its fourth edition in 1996.

It does indeed cover a wide range of biophysics. After a brief definition of its subject, there are extensive chapters on molecular structure, energetics and dynamics, physical factors in the environment and kinetics of biological systems. However, I think most modern biophysicists looking at the book would be more impressed by the things that are not there than by those that are.

Before seeing this book, I would have found it hard to imagine a new biophysics textbook with a chapter on molecular structure that did not mention X-ray crystallography or the use of NMR for protein structure determination. The initial description of the subject states that it is not simply the application of physical techniques to biology - but surely a biophysicist needs to know the techniques exist and what they do.

Equally, the treatment of energetics is very limited, with no mention of electron-transport processes. Even when the discussion of ion transport uses the terms symport and antiport, there is no mention of the role of electron transport and proton movements in the overall energetics of the cell. The treatment of photosynthesis is minimal, less than in the average biochemistry textbook, with no serious description of the physics of the energy-conversion process or the role of electron tunnelling in complex redox proteins.

The book looks and feels old-fashioned. It is clearly based on the 1960s model of biophysics on a branch of physiology, with the main interests in ion transport, blood flow, and nerve and muscle function. It provides a solid basis of the physical chemistry involved in those areas, but the absence of so much of modern biophysics makes it a weak contestant for a student's or a library's budget.

Donald Edmonds's book has much less ambitious objectives, being restricted to electricity and magnetism. But it is based on the fairly grandiose idea that "ultimately all living processes must be understood in terms of electromagnetic fields and forces". Few biologists would understand or even note the connection between the flamingos pictured on the cover and the contents of the book. I suspect that the hope that students of biology and medicine will find the book attractively non-mathematical also grossly underestimates their numerophobia.

In many ways, however, the book meets its objective, clearly setting out the basics of electricity and magnetism. The main part deals unashamedly with the basic theory of electricity, covering Gauss's law, properties of conductors, electric dipoles and dielectrics. It also covers magnetic fields, magnetic materials and induced electric and magnetic fields. The second part of the book deals with applications.

As with Glaser's book, it is concerned mainly with the properties of ionic systems and the properties of ionic gradients across biological membranes and transport systems. Again, as in Glaser's book, there is no connection to the overall energetics of the cell. In a rather odd organisation, chapters on the behaviour of ions in pores and models of ion co-ports and counter-ports are separated by one on "Possible mechanisms for a magnetic animal compass". A final chapter deals with the theory of pulsed NMR, but does not really carry through to offer examples of its use.

Each chapter has an introductory box and ends with a summary, list of key equations and set of problems. The book conveniently sets out the basic information that forms the background to the physical approach to parts of biology. It would be useful to research students and senior research workers with biological backgrounds who find they need to understand electrical phenomena at the physical level. Parts may also help undergraduates in biophysics and physiology or pharmacology who find classical physical chemistry books heavy going.

Both books, but particularly Glaser's, look very old-fashioned to anyone used to modern biology and biochemistry textbooks. Edmonds offers some fresh approaches, but both are really dealing with the physics of the 1960s and 1970s biology. Much of biology deals with very different questions now and requires different aspects of physics for full understanding. Much of the material in the books is available in standard physical chemistry texts.

These books, which end where they should begin, represent a lost opportunity: to produce biophysics textbooks that address current needs.

Michael C. W. Evans is professor of plant chemistry, University College London.

Electricity and Magnetism in Biological Systems. First edition

Author - Donald T. Edmonds
ISBN - 0 19 850680 5 and 850679 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £39.50 and £19.50
Pages - 286

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