Book Review: What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger

I first heard about this book in a lecture I attended in my first year of college and I first thought it was based on physics side of science in general, which is agreeable mistake because Erwin Schrödinger played one of the biggest roles in the advancement of quantum mechanics in the 1920s by formulating wave mechanics(Also because I couldn’t hear the title properly). Later when I read it as a reference in the book ‘DNA’ by Watson, I was intrigued. Why is a book by physicist suggested in a book on biology? And I discovered for myself why, when I finished this book yesterday.

‘What Is Life?’ by Erwin Schrödinger is a very short book, based on a series of his lectures on explaining the behaviour of living organisms, more specifically, the behaviour of their cells and the nervous systems using the discovered, or to-be-discovered laws of physics. That is actually a normal viewpoint especially for a physicist, and also by a chemist. After all, every living organism is in the end an organized system of atoms, working in a thermodynamic system, bringing it as whole to life.

The author’s intention through this book is to “make clear the fundamental idea, which hovers between biology and physics, to both the physicist and the biologist.”

In the book, the author believes that there are laws, exact physical laws that would explain the working of cells in the living organism, which would by extension would also help explain why are living organisms ‘living’. He believed like that the system of cells behaves as a statistical system, So, even though it might be hard to explain individually what the atoms ought to be doing, we can on an average based on probabilities, guess in what way a collection of them should behave. There is no math in the book, don’t worry. The book in a small amount of pages, points how mutation can be compared with ‘quantum leaps’, and how does a system stay alive can be interpreted in context to entropy. It is not a surprise that after reading this book, many physicist changed their focus to understanding the science of the living, biology. The epilogue features a section towards consciousness and free will!

“There is nothing over which a free man ponders less than death; his wisdom is, to meditate not on death but on life.”

Though I personally felt that I had to concentrate comparatively harder to stay on track, with a small extra effort, the book isn’t ‘just for scientists’. This is one of the few books which attempts to reconcile to fields of science, or by extension three, (physics, biology and, chemistry), for a common knowledge. So if you are searching for something short, challenging, resourceful, and yet interesting, you can give this book a try. Happy reading!

PS: Since my exams ended last month, I have decided to use the whole month oh July reading books had for so long in my bucket list, and couldn’t get time before due to exams and stuff. So this is why I was able to post about three books in the past one week or so. More to come!

-The Cosmogasmic Person

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