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Course Information





Teaching Assistants

PHYS 438 / BIOL 438

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Welcome to the Physics of Zoology Web Page!


April 29, 2004

We have a textbook for the course now!

Title: "Zoological Physics"
Author: Boye Ahlborn
Publisher: Springer Verlag (2004)


There will be two instructors for this course. Representing The Department of Physics is Dr. Boye Ahlborn.

Course Outline

Zoological Physics deals with tissue and organs and describes how the whole body or groups of animals interact with their environment. The methods of a first year physics course are applied here to make quantitative predictions about the actions, the body design, and the physical limitations of animals.

  • How do animals survive in hot or cold climates?
  • Can birds be smaller than bees?
  • Why are spider webs so strong?
  • How much lung surface does the average person have?
  • How fast can big animals run?
  • Why is the ostrich unable to fly?
  • How are voices produced and how does the ear work?
  • Is light the only means to "see"?

These and other, similar questions are addressed in this course. It is surprising how much "good physics" animals practice, and "have used" in their physiology throughout evolution, millions of years before they were discovered by scientists and engineers.

The course is intended for senior undergraduate and graduate students, who know enough zoology to enjoy discovering how physics to appreciate how simple physical models can be applied in a non technical environment.

Part I

How animals use energy and materials. The metabolic rate, allometry, muscle power, strong materials in biology breathing and blood system, walking, running, swimming, and flying.

Part II

How animals use every field that we know* to perceive their environment, find their prey, or to avoid being eaten, and to communicate and survive in groups. (*namely gravitation, light, sound waves, electric and magnetic fields)


Since the course material crosses the border between different disciplines students are asked to work on the assignments in groups of 3 or 4, and hand in a single assignment for the group. In order to meet other members of the class the Teaching Assistants will assign student groups.

Term paper: a taste of professional work

In the term paper a physical principle of some biological process is to be investigated. Each student must select his/her own topic. There is no restriction other than that the the topic is approved by one of the instructors. Here are a few examples of topics:

  • acoustics of the bat
  • how whales find their way in the ocean
  • the mechanical and optical tricks of the archer fish
  • divers of the deep
  • how animals use different ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum
  • material exchange in mammalian versus avian lungs
  • how animals use optical tricks to hide
  • nerve conduction and electric senses
  • animal batteries and discharge circuits
  • mechanical structures of muscles
  • tricks to survive very cold and very hot environments
  • physical principles that help high performance athletes
  • the mechanics of walking or running

Poster: learning to present professional work

Each student must produce a poster describing the essence of the term paper, and explain it to the members of the class in the poster sessions scheduled in the last week of term.

Final Exam

The final exam is open book. It will likely contain one problem which every student must attempt, one problem to be selected from 4 or 5 options, one problem chosen from the poster material, and an essay problem from a list of specified topics.


It is expected that each student has taken a first year physics course and has access to a first year physics textbook, for instance Tipler: Physics for Scientists and Engineers, or Halliday and Resnick (and Walker): Physics for Scientists and Engineers.

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