University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy


Applying physics to epidemiology

Alex Kamenev
Alex Kamenev
Alex Schumann

What does epidemiology have to do with quantum physics? Condensed matter theorist, Alexander Kamenev has been using the tools of the quantum mechanic to help biologists further understand the behavior of diseases. “If you think about it, an epidemiologist tries to describe a large community of bacteria to determine their behavior statistically.” Kamenev says that task is not that different from what a condensed matter theorist does when studying interacting groups of particles.

Kamenev’s area of interest is in physics at mesoscopic scales, those sizes which are small enough to exhibit quantum coherence and interference effects, but large enough so that they are not easily described by the well-developed theory of bulk materials. The problem with the mesoscopic scales is that they are very complex due to the major role played by electron interactions between themselves. Kamenev uses a metaphor to explain strongly interacting versus weakly interacting systems. He compares a mesoscopic system to a small village, where one is forced to be dependent on one’s neighbors to strongly interact with them in order to survive. A bulk system is like a big city, where one may go about one’s business without even knowing one’s neighbors names. Kamenev says that this village of electrons is similar in many ways to a community of microbes. A biologist looking through a microscope can not know whether a microbe will eat or be eaten by its neighbors. In the same way a physicist observing a group of electrons can not how it will interact with another electron. “Amazingly the same tools can be used to make a prediction on both systems,” Kamenev says.

Kamenev and his collaborators have been able to yield results which were not previously available to biologists by using tools commonly employed in mesoscopic physics such as eikonal approximations. He published his results in physics journals with the hope of applying condensed matter physics to epidemiology.

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