Britton Chance Distinguished Lecture in Engineering and Medicine

2023 Lecture

Rob Phillips
Fred and Nancy Morris Professor
California Institute of Technology

“A Language Whose Characters are Triangles

Wednesday, November 15, 2023, 3:30 PM, Wu and Chen Auditorium, Levine Hall


One of the most intriguing outcomes of casting our thinking about the world around us in mathematical terms is that phenomena that were thought to be quite distinct are instead revealed as being the “same.” Thinkers as long ago as Pliny the Elder made observations on active matter noting: “It is a peculiarity of the starling to fly in troops, as it were, and then to wheel round in a globular mass like a ball, the central troop acting as a pivot for the rest.’’ In this talk I will introduce field theory and the emergence of the modern theory of active matter as formulated by Toner and Tu to describe the collective motions of animals such as the giant herds of wildebeest on the plains of the Serengeti. We will then use active matter theory at a billion fold smaller scale to describe the motion of “flocks’’ of actin that power the movement of the single-celled parasites that cause malaria and toxoplasmosis. Our theoretical analysis will be used as a tool to interpret single-cell/single-molecule experiments on the dynamics of these fascinating parasitic organisms. All of these topics will serve as an invitation to a broader discussion of how the study of the living world is enriched by adopting the mindset that led Galileo to his assertion that the language of the natural world is mathematical.

Speaker Biography:
From the age of 17, my life has been driven primarily by science, coloring everything from the books I read to the destinations I choose for travel, which now includes having led 15+ field trips in evolutionary biology all around the world. My adventures in learning physics included working my way from a several year stint as an electrician to becoming a physics graduate student. Although my first love was physics and mathematics, as I learned more about the living world, it seemed that many of the most exciting problems in science are found there. As a result, I made the switch from materials physics to biology when I moved from a faculty position at Brown University to Caltech. The NIH Director’s Pioneer Award gave me the chance to become a full-time physical biologist, with a group that aims to be equally adept at theory and experiments, and the MIRA award has been similarly transformative. Much of my biological education and taste in biological questions has come from the privilege of teaching and doing research with a host of fantastic collaborators including Steve Quake (physical biology laboratory), Dianne Newman (freshman biology), Victoria Orphan (evolution), Doug Rees (structural biology and physiology), David Baltimore(virology and immunology) and Eric Davidson (gene regulatory networks) and in my decade long association with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. Until recently, I served as Physiology Course co-director with Wallace Marshall and Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz. Most importantly, my nearly two decades of work with Jane Kondev (Brandeis University), Julie Theriot (University of Washington), Hernan Garcia (UC Berkeley), Christina Hueschen (Stanford University), Thomas Lecuit (College de France), Wallace Marshall (UCSF), and Ron Milo (Weizmann Institute) on our books “Physical Biology of the Cell”, “Cell Biology by the Numbers” and “The Principles of Biological Shape” has shown me how quantitative thinking can serve as an engine of biological discovery. Stimulated by these experiences, my laboratory has focused on careful predictive modeling in physical biology complemented by precision measurements at both the single-molecule and single-cell level to precisely test those predictions.

Previous Britton Chance Distinguished Lecturers

1995: Lewis S. Edelheit, General Electric Company

1996: Douglas A. Lauffenburger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1998: George Georgiou, University of Texas at Austin

1999: Jeffrey A. Hubbell, University of Zürich

2000: W. Mark Saltzman, Cornell University

2001: Chaitan S. Khosla, Stanford University

2002: Sangtae Kim, Lilly Research Laboratories

2003: Larry V. McIntire, Rice University

2004: Deborah E. Leckband, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

2004: Stephen R. Quake, Stanford University

2005: Frances H. Arnold, California Institute of Technology

2006: Adam P. Arkin, University of California at Berkeley

2007: Kristi S. Anseth, University of Colorado at Boulder

2008: Jay D. Keasling, University of California at Berkeley

2009: Mark E. Davis, California Institute of Technology

2010: David A. Tirrell, California Institute of Technology

2011: Frank S. Bates, University of Minnesota

2012: Arup K. Chakraborty, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

2013: Melody A. Swartz, Ecole polytechnique federale de Lausanne

2014: James C. Liao, University of California, Los Angeles

2015: Samir Mitragotri, University of California, Santa Barbara

2016: David Mooney, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science

2017: Lynda G. Griffith, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

2018: David Schaffer, University of California at Berkeley

2020: Jennifer Elisseeff, Johns Hopkins University

2022: Clifford P. Brangwynne, Princeton University

This distinguished lecture honors Britton Chance

Britton ChanceBritton Chance (1913-2010) was a world leader in transforming theoretical science into useful biomedical and clinical applications. Among his pioneering contributions to fundamental biomedical science were his discovery of numerous enzyme-substrate compounds, World War II development of computers for Radar, the elucidation of the fundamental principles of control of bioenergetics and metabolism, the first human subject study using 31P NMR (phosphorous nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy and more recently optical spectroscopy and imaging of human brain and breast. Through decades of scholarly mentorship of colleagues in disciplines ranging from mathematics to clinical medicine, he brought additional distinction to this University and multiplied its contributions to improving the human condition.

Professor Chance was Eldridge Reeves Johnson University Professor of Biophysics, Physical Chemistry and Radiologic Physics at Penn. He received his undergraduate degree from Penn’s Towne Scientific School in 1935 and doctoral degrees from both Penn and the University of Cambridge. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the Institute of Medicine and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London. Among very many other recognitions, he received the National Medal of Science, the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the American Philosophical Society, the Biological Physics Prize from the American Physical Society, and honorary degrees from the Karolinska Institut, the Medical College of Ohio at Toledo, Semmelweis University, Hahnemann Medical College and the Universities of Pennsylvania, Helsinki, Dusseldorf and Buenos Aires. In his honor, Huazhong University of Science and Technology named a major laboratory as the Britton Chance Center for Biomedical Photonics.