Physical Principles: Energy—The Prime Observable

  • Peter R. Bergethon


The idea of abstractions as practical simplifications of systems has been introduced because it is fundamentally useful in the scientist’s day-to-day laboratory experience. By using different levels of abstraction while making observations on a system of interest, we can invoke different techniques. We often find ways to imply information that might not otherwise be accessible to direct measurement. When we examine a system, we decide at what level our detailed knowledge of the system will be needed and choose an abstraction appropriate to that level of detail. Abstractions are like choosing the magnification on a microscope. Remember that abstractions are simplifications; they do not operate out of context. Abstractions are attempts to generalize about systems whose actual behavior may be different from that predicted by the abstraction. Detecting these gaps between real and predicted behavior is the role of experimental science. We can formulate an image of a natural system with its peaks and valleys (represented by functions); then, choosing an abstraction, we predict a behavior of the system. Then we measure and map out the behavior of the real system to see if the prediction is correct. This map of the natural system’s state space gives us the information we need to describe the system and predict its future action. Several of the most important maps we can construct for a biological system are maps of its energy at each point of the state space and of the forces acting at each of these points. These energy and force mappings are a unifying idea that is used in every level of abstraction. Developing a facility and comfort with describing a system in terms of its energy surfaces unifies and simplifies the practice of biophysical chemistry.


State Space Potential Energy Surface Physical Principle Potential Energy Barrier Biophysical Chemistry 
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Further Reading

  1. Feynman R. P., Leighton R. B., and Sands M. (1963) The Feynman Lectures on Physics,vols. 1–3. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, MA. This is a transcription of the lectures given by Feynman for a two-year introductory physics course of his creation in the early 1960s at the California Institute of Technology. The style and insight almost always lead one to consult this classic text to find the deeper meaning of a physical principle.Google Scholar
  2. Fishbane P. M., Gasiorowicz S., and Thornton S. T. (1993) Physics for Scientists and Engineers. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.Google Scholar
  3. Halliday D., Resnick R., and Walker J. (1995) Fundamentals of Physics, 5th ed. John Wiley and Sons, New York.Google Scholar
  4. Tipler, P. A. (1982) Physics. 2d ed. Worth Publishers, New York.Google Scholar
  5. Warren W. S. (1993) The Physical Basis of Chemistry. Academic Press, Co., San Diego. This small book selects those topics in physics needed to understand most chemical processes. A quick, easy read and well worth the time.Google Scholar
  6. Hoppe W., Lohmann W., Markl H., and Ziegler H. (eds.) (1983) Biophysics. Springer-Verlag, New York.Google Scholar
  7. Weiss T. F. (1995) Cellular Biophysics, vols. 1 and 2. MIT Press, Boston.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter R. Bergethon
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiochemistryBoston University School of MedicineBostonUSA

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