Module Details

The information contained in this module specification was correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change, either during the session because of unforeseen circumstances, or following review of the module at the end of the session. Queries about the module should be directed to the member of staff with responsibility for the module.
Title Physics of Life
Code PHYS482
Coordinator Professor P Weightman
Year CATS Level Semester CATS Value
Session 2021-22 Level 7 FHEQ Second Semester 7.5


To introduce students to the physical principles needed to address important problems such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the understanding of ecological systems, the growth of resistance to antibiotics, the challenge of sustainable development and the study of disease. These problems offer excellent opportunities for rewarding careers.

Learning Outcomes

(LO1) An understanding of the conditions necessary for life to evolve in a universe.

(LO2) An understanding of the thermodynamics and organization of living things.

(LO3) Familiarity with physical techniques used in the study of biological systems.

(LO4) An understanding of current ideas of how life may have evolved on earth.

(LO5) An understanding of how the earth’s climate has varied over geological time.

(S1) Problem solving skills.



The Universe: Necessary conditions for life to evolve:
Brief overviews of the basic physical forces and fundamental constants. Nuclear stability and the evolution of atoms. The fundamental relationships between physical forces and constants that are necessary for the evolution of the universe into a system in which stars and planets can form and the chemistry required by life is possible.

Life on earth:
Exoplanets, the solar system and the “Goldilocks” zone. The role of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere. Milankovitch cycles and ice ages. The origin of the earth’s water and oxygen.
Continental drift, “the snowball earth” and the “Cambrian explosion”. The classification of life on earth.

The molecular basis of life:
The chemistry of life on earth.
Speculations on the origin of life on earth.

The genetic code and the chirality of life:
The molecules of life. DNA, RNA amino acids, proteins , lipids and sugars. Protein folding. Chirality of living systems. The genetic code and the role of DNA and RNA.

Physical techniques for studying biological systems:
X-ray and optical techniques for the determination of the structure and function of biological systems. Paleoclimatology studies of ice cores and isotope dating techniques.

Thermodynamic considerations and self organisation in chemical systems:
Brief overview of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. The arrow of time.
Chemical processes close to equilibrium, Free energies, crystallisation, Order and inactivity.
Chemical processes far from equilibrium. Non equilibrium thermodynamics Energy flows. Instability and self organization. The energetics of metabolism. The thermodynamics of ecological systems.

An introduction to chaos and complexity.

The importance of information in biology:
The central dogma of molecular biology. Biological evolution. Convergent evolution.
Life and information.

Summary of the major transitions in evolution:
No foresight and no way back.

Teaching and Learning Strategies

The course material specified in the syllabus will be covered in lectures.
The tutorial work will provide students with the opportunity to confirm their understanding of the material covered in the lectures.

Teaching Method 1 - Lecture
Description: Lecture
Attendance Recorded: Yes

Teaching Method 2 - Tutorial
Description: Tutorial
Attendance Recorded: Yes

The module will be delivered remotely in 2021. Asynchronous learning materials (notes/videos/exercises etc) will be made available to students through the VLE. The module will have regular synchronous sessions in active learning mode.
We are planning no changes to module content compared to previous years, and expect students to spend a similar amount of time-on-task compared to previous years. These changes will mainly constitute a rebalancing of hours from scheduled directed learning hours to unscheduled directed learning hours as students will have some flexibility as to when the y access asynchronous materials.

Teaching Schedule

  Lectures Seminars Tutorials Lab Practicals Fieldwork Placement Other TOTAL
Study Hours     2


Timetable (if known)              
Private Study 57


EXAM Duration Timing
% of
Penalty for late
time-controlled online examination  1 1/2 hours    60       
CONTINUOUS Duration Timing
% of
Penalty for late
Assessment 2: essay topic on an aspect of the course There is no resit opportunity except in extenuating circumstances. Standard UoL penalty applies for late submission. This is an anonymous asse  the essay must not e    40       

Recommended Texts

Reading lists are managed at Click here to access the reading lists for this module.