What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell

Well, here we go—Great Books of the Western World, a ten-year reading plan. Aside from a yearly plan, I didn’t see that Adler wanted books to be read in any particular order within the year. So, I wanted my first read to be Schrodinger – What is Life? I am sure my commentary and interaction with each work will evolve; however, part of the enjoyment (I predict) of participating in the “great conversation” is adaptation and maturation over time.  


Chapter 1 Summary

Individual atoms and particles act in unpredictable ways; however, large groups of atoms and particles follow statistical laws which can be predicted and viewed as orderly. Examples of this phenomenon include the paramagnetism of oxygen gas, sinking fog and Brownian movement, and diffusion. In short small scale chaos can have an order or follow statistical laws on a larger scale, which can be described as “order from disorder.” Life depends on order, which require large numbers of atoms.  





Ludwig Boltzmann – Austrian physicist and philosopher. His greatest achievements were the development of statistical mechanics and the statistical explanation of the second law of thermodynamics.


Willard Gibbs – was an American scientist who made significant theoretical contributions to physics, chemistry, and mathematics. His work on the applications of thermodynamics was instrumental in transforming physical chemistry into a rigorous inductive science.



Angstrom – a unit of length equal to one hundred-millionth (10^-10th) of a centimeter, and is used to express wavelengths and interatomic distances


paramagnetism – a form of magnetism whereby some materials are weakly attracted by an externally applied magnetic field, and form internal, induced magnetic fields in the direction of the applied magnetic field.


predilection – a preference or special liking for something; a bias in favor of something


Chapter 1 (The Classical Physicist’s Approach to the Subject)

This book was written from a series of lectures, which were determined to be challenging to understand at the outset despite not using mathematical deduction. The main question this book seeks to answer is:


Primary Question: How can the events in space and time that occur within a living organism’s boundary be accounted for by physics and chemistry?


The conclusion (up front) was: present-day physics and chemistry cannot account for such events; however, there is no reason to think that these sciences couldn’t eventually account for it. The inability to explain is accounted for, which is an accomplishment in itself. 


Non-physicists aren’t expected to understand or appreciate the difference in statistical structure.  


The essential part of living cells is chromosome fiber which can be called aperiodic crystals. Aperiodic crystals are one of the most fascinating and complex material structures.


Question: How do aperiodic crystals compare to periodic crystals?


Whereas periodic crystals can be described as having a repeating pattern, aperiodic crystals show no repetition while maintaining an elaborate, meaningful design.


The Line of Attack

Develop a “naive physicist’s (what Shrodinger calls himself) idea about organisms.”

Investigate whether a Physicist can contribute to ideas about life and organisms.

When a theory is made, compare this theory to biological facts.


Question: Why are the atoms so small?


Lord Kelvin described this: if you could mark the molecules in a glass of water, then pour the contents into the ocean and evenly distribute them throughout the seven seas, and if then you took a class of water anywhere in the ocean, you would find in it about a hundred of these marked molecules.  


This question is more aimed at comparing the size of an atom and the size of our bodily selves, or why our bodies are so large compared with the atom.


The most interesting aspect of humans is their ability to feel, think, and perceive; however, we cannot perceive single atoms, which is a good thing because if we could, we would likely be unable to form ideas.  


Thought is orderly, which means our physical organization is well-ordered and follows physical laws. The interaction between our “system” and other “systems” is orderly.  


Individual atoms are disorderly, but large numbers allow for statistical laws to apply. The accuracy of these statistical laws increases with the number of atoms. All physical and chemical laws that play an essential role in organisms are statistical – large numbers to create order.  


An example was given where oxygen particles become magnetized in a magnetic field; however, the strength decreases with increased heat. The quality of paramagnetism depends on large quantities of oxygen particles; otherwise, there is no consistency but rather fluctuation.  


A second example is sinking fog, in which defined velocities depend on statistics of large quantities of minute droplets, whereas single droplets are subject to “Brownian movement.”


A third example is diffusion which is compared with “that of a blindfolded person on a large surface imbued with a certain desire of walking but without any preference for any particular direction and so changing his line continuously.”  


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