What is life? Schrodinger asked

Erwin Schrodinger won the 1933 Nobel Prize for his wave equations that furthered the development of quantum theory. He developed the notion of ‘superposition’, whereby two outcomes or states are mathematically superimposed into one event, and ‘entanglement’, whereby two particles are somehow connected so that measurement of one determines the measurement of the other (I think in an opposite direction. At least this is what I can glean from my spurious readings in the development of quantum theory—this is way above my pay grade). Schrodinger is also famous for his thought experiment to illustrate superposition involving a cat in a box that may be alive and dead at the same time because quantum phenomena are very weird. His mind operated with a particularly high level of genius.

In 1944 he wrote a book based on a lecture series entitled What is Life?, in which he hypothesizes about the large molecules that might compose a genome, and he wrote with prescience. James Watson and Francis Crick both said this book motivated them to search for the chemical structure of the gene and they discovered the double helix of DNA in 1953. Schrodinger’s book is very interesting still today (though the second half of the book on mind and consciousness is perhaps pedestrian). He approaches his study as a physicist and not a biologist. He figured out that all of the genetic material in our body, if isolated and gathered together, would amount to a tablespoon of material. He also figured out that the energy difference between isomers (same constituent atoms assembled into different shapes) would play a role in organic processes, and Monod and colleagues would demonstrate that this is so a decade later as they initiated molecular biology.

Schrodinger also analyzed life as countervailing entropy, i.e., that the ongoing deterioration of the universe into disorder due to entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, was abated by life’s negentropic processes. (Monod would champion this in his book Chance and Necessity with reference to Schrodinger.) He wondered at the lasting power of life structures, i.e., the soma, and analyzed the invariance and invariance in terms of quantum theory. He cites crystalline structures as a prime example of stable molecular arrangements and he considers that biological molecules, e.g., proteins, genes, etc., are also crystalline, not periodic ones like salt where the molecules repeat themselves to form the crystal, but aperiodic ones where the structure and shape of the molecules is similarly stable but not repetitive. Life, then, is based upon aperiodic crystals (and again, Monod found this to be exactly so).

Schrodinger’s short book is a worthy read as he considers life and its biological chemistry in light of known physics (and who knew more?) He writes, “There is just one general conclusion to be obtained from it, and that, I confess, was my only motive for writing this book. . . . living matter, while not eluding the ‘laws of physics’ as established up to date, is likely to involve ‘other laws of physics’ hitherto unknown, which, however, once they have been revealed, will form just as integral a part of this science as the former.” Vital processes are indeed a mystery that is solvable and that will involve a new understanding of physical principles analogous to, he says, how Einstein’s theories modified Newton’s theories, and how quantum theory modified Einstein’s.

He focused on how life sustains itself in contravention of entropy, i.e., the 2nd law of thermodynamics.  “What an organism feeds upon is negative entropy. Or, to put it less paradoxically, the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.”   Remember Schrodinger wrote this 4 years before Claude Shannon published his book, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, that gave information theory a jump start and elevated ‘entropy’ and ‘negentropy’ to key concepts in modern science. So in answer to his question, what is life?, Schrodinger suggested that the invariant molecules composing the genome maintained their form contravening entropy through their replication down generations of somatic reproductions and that each somatic vehicle developed from the chemistry of its tablespoonful of genes, lived by feeding upon negentropy to resist entropy, and died when it could no longer prevent the progress to “maximum entropy which is death”, as he put it. Wow! So explaining that is why he wrote this book. I am not sure if other scientists, physicists or biologists, concur with his statement that this elucidates other new laws of physics, but the scientific revolution accelerates even now in any event. Travel on.