William Bialek, Ph.D.

John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor, Princeton University

William Bialek is the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics and a member of the multidisciplinary Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. He also serves as the Visiting Presidential Professor of Physics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he has helped to launch an initiative for the theoretical sciences.

A theoretical physicist broadly interested in the phenomena of life, Bialek is best known for his contributions to our understanding of coding and computation in the brain. Bialek and collaborators have shown that aspects of brain function can be described as essentially optimal strategies for adapting to the complex dynamics of the world, making the most of the available signals in the face of fundamental physical constraints and limitations. He has followed these ideas of optimization into the early events of embryonic development and the processes by which all cells make decisions about when to read out the information stored in their genes. In earlier work, he explored the interface between quantum and classical dynamics in enzymes and in the initial events of photosynthesis. Recently he and his colleagues have shown how the collective states of biological systems — the activity in a network of neurons or the flight directions of a flock of birds — can be described using ideas from statistical physics, connecting quantitative detail with new experimental data. Most generally, he would like to know if there are theoretical principles that have the power and generality that we have come to expect in physics yet encompass the full complexity and diversity of life’s most beautiful phenomena.

Bialek received his A.B. in 1979 and Ph.D. in 1983, both in biophysics, from the University of California, Berkeley. After postdoctoral appointments at the University of Groningen and at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he returned to UC Berkeley as a faculty member in 1986. In late 1990, he joined the newly formed NEC Research Institute (now the NEC Laboratories) at Princeton, where he became an institute fellow. He joined the Princeton faculty in 2001. His work has been recognized by the National Academy of Sciences and the Swartz Prize for Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience among other honors. As passionate about teaching as about research, he has received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton and in 2012 published a textbook: Biophysics: Searching for Principles.

Past Project: Searching for universality in the state space of neural networks

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