Philip Nelson

(215) 898-7001
(215) 898-2010
  • Professor, University of Pennsylvania (1998-)
  • Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania (1992-1998)
  • Assistant Professor, University of Pennsylvania (1988-1992)
  • Assistant Professor, Boston University (1987-88)


Honors include:

  • Emily Gray Award of the Biophysical Society, "for far reaching and significant contributions to the teaching of biophysics, developing innovative educational materials, and fostering an environment exceptionally conducive to education in Biological Physics." (2009)
  • Fellow of the American Physical Society, "For contributions to the understanding of soft biomaterials, quantum fields, and superstrings, using geometrical and topological methods" (2003)
  • Ira Abrams Memorial Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching (2001)
  • National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award (1988)
  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow (1988)
  • Department of Energy Outstanding Junior Investigator Award (1988)
  • Junior Fellow, Harvard University Society of Fellows (1984-87)



Ph.D., Harvard University (1984)

Research Interests: 

I'm currently studying the physics of artificial biomembranes, biopolymers such as DNA, and other "soft" condensed matter systems. There is a great cultural gap between physics, which seeks to understand extremely simple systems, and biology, which is obliged to study the overall behavior of extremely complex systems. I think that one area where simplicity and life intersect is the study of biomembranes and biopolymers, both in isolation and as active elements of cells. Membranes and polymers display the sort of universal behavior amenable to the powerful tools of statistical physics, thus making these systems are a bit more inevitable, less accidental, than more complex architectural elements of life. Nature has made extensive use of these generic properties in constructing useful materials and molecular machines; moreover, artificial analogs of biomaterials are subjects of intense investigation for a wide variety of bioengineering applications. Of course, physicists have been studying membranes and polymers for much of this century. Much physical research on these systems has concerned bulk systems, in thermal equilibrium. But the activities of many molecular actors are obscured when we look at them in bulk; new, single-molecule techniques reveal much that was previously hidden. Also, life processes take place far from equilibrium. So we have been studying mainly experiments involving the manipulation of single molecules of DNA, and dynamical phenomena involving membranes. I have some interest as well in general nonlinear dynamics (including pattern formation), self-assembly, electrostatics at the colloidal level, and the general area of geometrical methods in physics.

Selected Publications: 

Here are my profiles in ResearcherID, ORCID, and Google Scholar. Most of these articles are freely available here.

  • My book: A Student's Guide to Python for Physical Modeling (Princeton University Press, 2015) (with Jesse M. Kinder)
  • My book: Physical Models of Living Systems (W.H. Freeman and Co.,  2015).
  • My book: Biological Physics: Energy, Information, Life with new art by David Goodsell (W.H. Freeman and Co.,  2014). Translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese.
  • Old and New Results About Single-Photon Sensitivity in Human Vision, Physical Biology 20:025001 (2016).
  • The Syncytial Drosophila Embryo as a Mechanically Excitable Medium PLoS ONE 8 e77216 (2013) (with Timon Idema, Julien O. Dubuis, Louis Kang, M. Lisa Manning, Tom C. Lubensky, and Andrea J. Liu).
  • Transformation of Stimulus Correlations by the Retina, PLoS Computational Biology 9 e1003344 (2013) (with Kristina D. Simmons, Jason S. Prentice, Gasper Tkacik, Jan Homann, Heather K. Yee, Stephanie E. Palmer, and Vijay Balasubramanian).
  • Three-dimensional Orientation and Dynamic Wobble of Myosin V by High Time Resolution Single Molecule Polarized Fluorescence, Biophys. J. 104 1263-1273 (2013) (with John F. Beausang, Deborah Y. Shroder, and Yale E. Goldman).
  • First-principles Calculation of DNA Looping in Tethered Particle Experiments, Physical Biology, 6 025001-(1–22) (2009) (with K. Towles, J.F. Beausang, H.G. Garcia, and R. Phillips).
  • The Role of Microtubule Movement in Bidirectional Organelle Transport, PNAS 105 10011-10016 (2008) (with I. Kulic, A.E.X. Brown, H. Kim, C. Kural, B. Blehm, P. Selvin, and V. Gelfand).
  • High flexibility of DNA on short length scales probed by atomic force microscopy, Nature Nanotechnology, 1 137-141 (2006) (with P. A. Wiggins, T. van der Heijden, F. Moreno--Herrero, A. Spakowitz, R. Phillips, J. Widom, and C. Dekker).
  • Electrostatic Repulsion of Positively Charged Vesicles and Negatively Charged Objects, Science 285 394--397 (1999) (with H. Aranda-Espinosa, Y. Chen, N. Dan, T. C. Lubensky, L. Ramos, and D. A. Weitz).
  • Transport of Torsional Stress in DNA. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 96 14342 (1999).
  • Torsional Directed Walks, Entropic Elasticity, and DNA Twist Stiffness, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 94 14418 (1997) (with J. D. Moroz).
  • Spontaneous Expulsion of Giant Lipid Vesicles Induced by Laser Tweezers, Phys. Rev. Lett. 78 386 (1997) (with J. D. Moroz, R. Bar-Ziv, and E. Moses).
  • Lectures on Strings and Moduli Space, Phys. Reports 149 337 (1987).
  • Global Color is not Always Defined, Phys. Rev. Lett. 50, 943 (1983) (with A. Manohar).



Courses Taught: 

Phys 280: Physical Models of Biological Systems

Phys 516: Electromagnetic Phenomena