NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

From Princeton University Press


When a review on the back of a book says “Hands down the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.” my skeptical antennae go into action. This was either going to be absolutely brilliant, or sorely disappointing. Thankfully it is absolutely the former. Parthasarathy takes the reader on an insightful and intuitive journey through the world of biophysics, letting us see how physical laws lead to the wonder of biology at all scales of the organism (and beyond, though he only hints at this). I have read a fair number of books about genetics, but this gave without a doubt the most in-depth view as to what is really going on at the molecular level, about how randomness plays a crucial role, at the level of proteins moving around, at the level of lipid bilayers coallescing, and at the level of gene expression. This was something that I had always wondered about but had never seen so beautifully and simply expressed.

The book centres around four main principles: Self-assembly, regulatory circuits, predictable randomness and finally scaling. Each of these in a sense is interlocking and takes you up and down the different scales within an organism and between organisms. Each I had read about before but never as coherently or eloquently as this. While the physical principles are the guide to how physics leads to biology, the book is split largely into three parts: How physics constrains and guides life at the molecular level, how physics constrains the design of organisms in terms of body types and metabolism, and finally back to how we are going inexorably towards a world where we become the designers of organisms, how we read and alter genetic codes and how we have to be oh-so-careful as we move into the realm where the physical constraints may give way to (or are bent by) our own definitions of constraints (although working within the physical principles still). The latter part, as it moves away from the physical principles (though guided by them) feels to be somewhat removed from the first two parts, but still absolutely fascinating.

On top of the writing are the illustrations throughout the book which I can’t copy here, but a description of the book with a few of the hand-drawn images can be found here: https://eighteenthelephant.com/2021/06/20/so-simple-a-beginning-a-popular-science-book-about-biophysics/

I particularly like this description from Raghuveer himself:

How does life work? I begin with this question, which seems overwhelming. Life, after all, manifests itself with awe-inspiring variety and daunting complexity. There are, however, commonalities in the materials from which living things are built and, more profoundly, commonalities in the principles that guide these materials into living forms. Understanding how these materials and principles shape life is the aim of biophysics. The insights of this field, especially in the past few decades, provide a deeply inspiring perspective into the natural world, as well as profound practical benefits. Biophysics, however, is conspicuously absent from the popular science literature. Even the recent proliferation of books on genetics and genetic manipulation are oddly cryptic in their explanations of what genes and proteins are, and what they actually do, making it difficult for the non-expert to make sense of subjects that are both beautiful and immensely important.

Helpfully, he has also been on a number of podcasts, which are well worth a listen to get a sense of the style, the way of thinking and the clarity of the arguments:



I think that having a little bit of an understanding of genetics and evolution would help, but it is not crucial. Similarly having a little physics intuition would be good, but again, because of the clarity of the explanations, I think that someone without a science background could still get a great deal out of this book.

Is this the most beautiful book that I’ve ever read? I’m not sure the I have such a list to hand, but this book is certainly high up there.

How clear is this post?