Over the past decades, biology and environmental studies have evolved rapidly from descriptive, qualitative disciplines to more analytical, data-driven and quantitative fields. Our ability to collect numbers that describe the most basic processes around us has increased significantly, and simple calculations based on these data can provide important insights and enrich our scientific intuition.
This course is aimed at exposing students to the practice of making back of the envelope calculations (so called Fermi problems) with key numbers from the fields of biology and sustainability, and its useful applications in research. We will learn how to identify the major factors that determine the order of magnitude of the results, when to allow simplification, how to calculate them efficiently, and how to avoid common pitfalls.
The course is composed of weekly lectures on different aspects of quantitative cell biology and sustainability through many examples of basic (yet often surprising) questions:
-Size and geometry (e.g. What is larger, mRNA or the protein it codes for? How many cells are there in a human?)
- Concentrations and absolute numbers (e.g. What is the elemental and macromolecular composition of a cell? How many virions result from a single viral infection?)
- Energies and Forces (e.g. What is the power consumption of a cell? How much does protein synthesis take out of the entire energy budget of a cell?)
- Rates and durations (e.g. How long does it take cells to copy their genomes? What is faster, transcription or translation? What are the time scales for diffusion in cells?)
- Information and errors (e.g. What is the mutation rate during genome replication? What is the error rate in transcription and translation?)
The last few meetings of the course will be dedicated to presentations of student calculations as a final assignment.