What is Life

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My students and I have been discussing Erwin Schrödinger and his terrific little book, What is Life? (1944), that inspired a number of physicists and biologists, including James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, to take up the problem of the gene. Schrödinger posed a big question:

How can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?

He wondered whether “new laws of physics” would be necessary to explain life. Um…no. As Robin Holliday observed in 2006:

We now know that the new laws of physics that might govern the behaviour of the gene—the aperiodic crystal discussed by Schrödinger—never materialized, and there are no paradoxes to be resolved. This is the triumph of molecular biology: the behaviour of large complex molecules can be explained according to established principles of chemistry.

To us, this seems as obvious and banal as falling out of bed. Indeed, some of my students wrote about What is Life? as though Schrödinger must have already known that his hypothetical “aperiodic crystal” was in fact DNA.  Because really: what else could it have been? We can’t even imagine anymore.

And yes, the George Harrison song is great.

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