What is Life

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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3 Responses to What is Life

  1. John Wilkins says:

    I suggest that you also look at Schrödiger’s book in the light of the vitalism of Hans Driesch, where he argued that living things had some teleological propensity that was not reducible to a mechanical process. This may have weighed upon Schrödiger’s mind, given that he was a German-speaker and was being educated at the time Driesch was popular. The contrast here is what counts as that organising principle; Schrödiger is able to say it must have certain regular but a periodic properties. He was wrong that it was a crystal, but right that it was a perfectly mechanical molecule.

  2. mangrist says:

    Thanks for the comment, John. As you probably know, Schrodinger rankled some colleagues with his epilogue, “On Determinism and Free Will,” in which he invoked certain aspects of Hinduism. H.J. Muller in particular was annoyed by this.

    As for his hypotheses, not everyone was as enchanted as Watson. Max Perutz regarded ES as nothing but a dilettante:

    ‘A close study of the book and of the related
    literature has shown me that what was true of the book
    was not original, and most of what was original was known
    not to be true even when it was written…The apparent
    contradictions between life and the statistical laws of physics
    can be resolved by a science largely ignored by Schrodinger.
    That science is chemistry.’

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