nl en

Physics of Life (from Motors to Nerve Pulses)


Admission requirements

Elementary Physics and knowledge of the content of the first 7 chapters of the text book by Nelson

Note: This class is taught in English.


This class explores how the dazzling complexity of life at the nanoscale is governed by key concepts of physics, in particular entropy. We will learn how tiny molecular machines can carry out diverse tasks in the cell and begin to understand how brain cells communicate through electrical impulses.

The class is based on self-study of the a text book (see below). Bi-weekly lectures will highlight the most important concepts. The homework consists of problem sets, which are discussed in weekly exercise classes. Finally, there will be weekly presentations by the students on topics that are complementary to or extend the content discussed in the lectures.


  • Entropy, temperature and free energy (a recap)

  • Chemical forces and self assembly

  • Cooperative transitions in macromolecules

  • Enzymes and molecular machines

  • Molecular machines in membranes

  • Nerve impulses

Course objectives

After this class you will be able to:

  • Evaluate and synthesize new information to describe the physics of biological processes in living cells

  • Describe the mechanism behind self-assembly and its role in shaping the internal structure of a cell

  • Develop simple models for the kinetics of enzymes and molecular machines

  • Derive the equations governing nerve impulses

Soft skills

You will hone your presentation skills by giving a talk on a research paper or book chapter to your fellow students.



Mode of instruction

Self-study, lectures and tutor sessions.

Assessment method

Talk (given by student) and Final Exam (written, open book).


More information will be available on Blackboard UL

Reading list

Philip Nelson, Biological Physics Palgrave Macmillan (Aug 31, 2007) ISBN-13: 978-0716798972 EUR 57,95

The purchase of this book is mandatory.


Contact details lecturer: Dr. S.Semrau(Stefan)