PHY2029 The Physics of Living Systems 2023-24
Dr A. Corbett
Delivery Weeks: T1:01-11
Level: 5 (NQF)
Credits: 15 NICATS / 7.5 ECTS
Enrolment: 64 students (approx)


Students are introduced to the basic physical concepts and principles required to understand and study living systems. A synthetic approach is adopted: molecules-cells-tissue, emphasising the contributions of physics and the outstanding challenges. It starts at the molecular level and works up the scale of size and complexity to cover several major systems found in complex organisms.

Module Aims

This module aims give physics students a sound grasp of the interdisciplinary knowledge required to undertake biophysics projects at Stage 3/4.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

A student who has passed this module should be able to:

Syllabus Plan

  1. Introduction
    Brief historical survey
  2. Biomolecules
    1. Proteins
    2. Introductory biochemistry: amino acids and the peptide bond
    3. Physics of proteins
      1. Intra-and intermolecular interactions: electrostatic, hydrophobic, van der Waals
      2. Conformation and folding
      3. Functions: structural and transport
    4. Nucleic acids
      1. Introductory biochemistry
      2. Structure
      3. Dynamics, molecular motors
  3. The Physics of Cells
    1. Introduction to cellular organisation and some unanswered questions
    2. The plasma membrane
      1. Functions
      2. Structure: the physical properties of phospholipids
      3. Mechanics
      4. Permeability
    3. The cytoskeleton
      1. Structure
      2. Functions: mechanics, transport and motility
  4. Biological Solid Mechanics
    1. The structure of tissues
    2. The mechanics of the extracellular matrix
    3. Soft tissue mechanics, e.g. cartilage
    4. Bone biomechanics
    5. Mechanics in tissue growth and remodelling
  5. Biological Fluid Mechanics
    1. The rheology of blood
    2. Blood flow in the heart and large vessels
    3. Blood flow in the microcirculation
    4. Flow in the lymphatic system
    5. Respiratory gas transport and heat exchange
    6. Mucus rheology
  6. The Physics of Nerve and Muscle Function
    1. Generation and propagation of the action potential in nerves
    2. Synaptic transmission
    3. Muscle contraction: an introduction to molecular motors
  7. The Physics of Perception
    1. Tactile perception
    2. The structure of the eye and ear
    3. Transduction of optical and acoustic signals

Learning and Teaching

Learning Activities and Teaching Methods

Description Study time KIS type
20×1-hour lectures 20 hours SLT
2×1-hour problems/revision classes 2 hours SLT
5×6-hour self-study packages 30 hours GIS
4×4-hour problems sets 16 hours GIS
Reading, private study and revision 82 hours GIS


Weight Form Size When ILOS assessed Feedback
0% Guided self-study 5×6-hour packages Fortnightly 1-9 Discussion in class
0% 4 × Problems sets 4 hours per set Fortnightly 1-9 Solutions discussed in problems classes.
100% Final Examination 120 minutes January assessment period 1-9 Mark via MyExeter, collective feedback via ELE and solutions.


The following list is offered as an indication of the type & level of information that students are expected to consult. Further guidance will be provided by the Module Instructor(s).

Core text:

Supplementary texts:


Further Information

Prior Knowledge Requirements

Pre-requisite Modules Properties of Matter (PHY1024)
Co-requisite Modules none


Re-assessment is not available except when required by referral or deferral.

Original form of assessment Form of re-assessment ILOs re-assessed Time scale for re-assessment
Whole module Written examination (100%) 1-9 August/September assessment period

Notes: See Physics Assessment Conventions.

KIS Data Summary

Learning activities and teaching methods
SLT - scheduled learning & teaching activities 22 hrs
GIS - guided independent study 128 hrs
PLS - placement/study abroad 0 hrs
Total 150 hrs
Summative assessment
Coursework 0%
Written exams 100%
Practical exams 0%
Total 100%


IoP Accreditation Checklist
  • Not applicable, this is an optional module.
Availability unrestricted
Distance learning NO
Keywords Physics; Mechanics; Function; Physical; Systems; Structures; Tissues; Cells; Physical properties; Transport; Blood.
Created 01-Oct-10
Revised 07-Aug-20