MPHY2001: Physics of the Human Body


Course information

Unit value
Year of study
Course organiser
Second examiner
Other lecturers

Term 2
Dr Terence Leung
Prof Adam Gibson
Dr Jo Brunker, Dr Rebecca Yerworth


The course forms part of the Physics with Medical Physics (BSc), Medical Physics (MSci), Biomedical Engineering (BEng and MEng) and Natural Sciences (BSc and MSci) undergraduate degrees.


You will:

  • learn how the body maintains an optimal internal environment by comparing human autoregulation with other examples of control in science and engineering.
  • examine thermoregulation of the human body in some detail and see examples of how relatively simple physical principles can be used to explain aspects of human physiology.
  • learn about some of the underlying physical principles that underpin human sensing.
  • learn about pressure, volume and flow in blood vessels and the brain.


  • Apply conservation of energy arguments to solving some biomechanical problems.
  • Explain how the relationship between someone’s centre of gravity and base of support can be used to understand their stability.
  • Identify different mechanisms by which an engineering system may be controlled. 
  • Describe some aspects of control engineering applied to the human body. 
  • Predict how heat is generated and lost by the human body in different circumstances. 
  • Explain how the body responds to hot and cold conditions.
  • Choose appropriate methods of measuring physiological temperatures.
  • Describe the physical operation of sensory systems.
  • Identify common problems in sensing and how these are mitigated.
  • Explain how pressure, volume and flow relate to each other in the human body.
  • Describe the haemodynamics of the brain.

Teaching and exams

Teaching will consist of:

  • Lectures, 25-27 hours.
  • Labs/seminars/problem classes, 7-9 hours.
  • Required written work (essays, problem sheets), 40 hours.
  • Private reading, 60 hours.

The assessment will consist of:

  • 1 Unseen written examination (2.5 hours) worth 70% of the total course mark.
  • 1 piece of coursework completed during term-time worth 20% of the total course mark.
  • Lab-work during term-time worth 10% of the total course mark.


We assume that you have met the minimum entry requirements for our undergraduate degree programmes (i.e. A level Mathematics (grade A preferred), Physics and one other A level at ABB or above, or equivalent). If you feel you meet the prerequisites through a non-standard route, please contact the module organiser.

Specific knowledge assumed:

Mathematics: Familiarity with manipulation of equations, trigonometry, differential and integral calculus (mixed polynomial, geometric and exponential functions), exponentials, vectors, cylindrical coordinates.

Physics / Engineering: Familiarity with pressure, flow, conservation of energy, electrical circuit and geometrical optics are expected. The concepts will be revised quickly and then applied to the specific areas discussed in this module.

Biology: None. All necessary concepts will be reviewed during the module.

Other: None, but be aware that this module focuses on applying theory to the (messy) real world, setting problems up and learning to make reasonable simplifying assumptions to generate useful insights, solutions and approximations.


The course will introduce the foundational physics needed to understand the function - and malfunction - of some of the major systems of the human body, linking physics to physiology and healthcare.

Brief Syllabus

  • Control Theory including types of control and feedback algorithms
  • Homeostasis including positive and negative feedback and what happens when homeostasis fails
  • Thermoregulation including mechanisms for heat prodiction and loss, temperature regulation, response to hot and cold conditions and temperature measurement
  • Vision including optics, colour vision and image processing.
  • Hearing & Balance including acoustics, sound localisation and gyroscopes.
  • Blood pressure, volume and flow including Poiseuille's Law, fluid resistance, and vessel compliance.
  • Cerebral haemodynamics including the intracranial pressure-volume curve, the Windkessel model of the brain and the simulation of pathological conditions.


There are also guest lectures, including The Physics of Prehistoric Animals, including trilobite optics, dimensional analysis of dinosaur size and finite element modelling of dinosaur bite strength.

Core Texts 

Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, BH Brown, RH Smallwood, DC Barber, PV Lawford and DR Hose (Institute of Physics, London, 2001)