Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The Material Basis of life
On February 5, 1943, the lecture hall at
Dublin's Trinity College was jammed with dignitaries, diplomats,
leaders of the Irish government and the Catholic Church, and artists,
socialites, and students. They had come to hear Nobel laureate Erwin
the famous scientific refugee from Hitler's Austria. Only five
years before, on September 14, 1938, Schrödinger and
his wife Anne had narrowly escaped the Nazis. Bidding farewell
to Graz, Austria, for Rome and taking just three bags, he left
his gold Nobel medallions and the chain of the Papal Academy behind.
After a brief sanctuary at the Vatican, he visited Oxford University
in England; a year later he was given a chair at Trinity College
The subject of the
lecture, the first of three called "What Is Life? The Physical Aspect
of the Living Cell," was more interesting and much broader than
the initially planned talk, "On the Mutation Rate Caused by X-Rays
on the Fruit Fly, Drosophila melanogaster." Schrödinger
had aimed his vast intuitive and analytical intelligence at one of the
most ambitious possible questions—understanding life as a material
The opportunity to hear from this deity of science added to the stir
in the lecture hall. Even Time magazine covered the lectures
and in its April 5, 1943, issue wrote, "His soft, cheerful speech,
his whimsical smile are engaging. And Dubliners are proud to have a Nobel
Prize winner living among them" (Moore 1992, 395).
been studying and refining the ideas in this first lecture for years.
He wanted to know what accounted for the strange complexities taking
place within living organisms. His father had been a serious amateur
botanist, and a close friend from college had steered Schrödinger
toward new and important readings in biology. He announced himself to
his audience as a "naïve" physicist—despite being
a world authority both on physiology and the biophysics of color vision.
In the first few minutes, Schrödinger (1944, 3) announced the major
theme of his first two lectures: that the essential part of a living
cell—the chromosome—was a strange material, some sort of aperiodic
“In physics we have dealt hitherto only with periodic crystals.
To a humble physicist's mind, these are very interesting and complicated
objects; they constitute one of the most fascinating and complex
material structures by which inanimate nature puzzles his wits. Yet,
compared with the aperiodic crystal, they are rather plain and dull.
The difference in structure is of the same kind as that between an
ordinary wallpaper in which the same pattern is repeated again and
again in regular periodicity and a masterpiece of embroidery, say a
Raphael tapestry, which shows no dull repetition, but an elaborate,
coherent, meaningful design traced by the great master.”
focus on what makes progeny from parent, on an as yet unknown crystalline
molecule within the chromosome, amounted to a scientific prediction of
the nature of the gene. It would take James Watson and Francis Crick
ten years to unravel the workings of this "aperiodic crystal"—and
identify the hereditary, helical molecule as deoxyribonucleic acid—DNA. …
Schrödinger's third and final lecture introduced a thermodynamic
consideration that led in time to what is now known as nonequilibrium
thermodynamics. If before he had been talking about order from order—if
before he had intimated that mutations had a stochastic component that
was in keeping with the second law—he now turned to the question
of order from disorder: how does the cell manage to escape the
randomizing effects of the second law? After all, it is this escape that
makes living forms startling replicants, almost magical three-dimensional
copies of themselves.
Reminding his audience
of the chemical means by which a small number of atoms control the cell,
he asked, "How does an organism concentrate a stream of order on
itself and thus escape the decay of atomic chaos mandated by the Second
Law of Thermodynamics?"
would try to link life with the underlying theorems of thermodynamics.
How is order ensured, given that systems of microparticles tend toward
disorder? Schrödinger caught sight of the problem. Consider a copy
machine: if you copy a copy, it gets dimmer; if you copy that copy, it
gets dimmer and duller still. While organisms do lose features of their
parents, their copying fidelity is astonishing; and they sometimes progress
or improve, evolving complex refinements, sometimes whole new features.
How do organisms perpetuate (and even increase) their organization in
a universe governed by the second law? We call this "the Schrödinger
The basic resolution
of the Schrödinger paradox is simple: Organisms continue to exist
and grow by importing high-quality energy from outside their bodies.
They feed on what Schrödinger termed "negative entropy"—the
higher organization of light quanta from the sun. Because they are not
isolated, or even closed systems, organisms—like sugar crystals
forming in a supersaturated solution—increase their organization
at the expense of the rise in entropy around them. The basic answer to
the paradox has to do with context and hierarchy. Material and energy
are transferred from one hierarchical level to another. To understand
the growth of natural complex systems such as life, we have to look at
what they are part of—the energy and environment around them. In
the case of ecosystems and the biosphere, increasing organization and
evolution on Earth requires disorganization and degradation elsewhere.
You don't get something from nothing.
The spectacular rise of one side of Schrödinger's program—the
genetic and informational—has been made at the expense of the other—the
energetic and thermodynamic. We do not wish to take anything away from
the tremendous success of inquiries into the genetic, languagelike aspect
of life. But we do wish to advocate flipping over Schrödinger's
record and listening to its other side. In the daring of his vision,
what is important is not that Schrödinger made mistakes but that
he called attention to the dual information- and energy-handling
abilities of living beings—the organization they derived from their
parents, on the one hand, and, on the other, the organization they maintain
in spite of (and, as we will increasingly see, because of) the second
law's mandate for systems to head toward equilibrium.
When we follow Schrödinger
we find ways of looking through life to the energetic processes governing
not only life but inanimate systems as well. Life's complexity is due
not just to its chemical data processing, but to its function as an energy
transformer. Indeed, life's DNA replication and RNA protein-building
duties may have ridden into existence on a thermodynamic horse. Their
roles make sense in the context of an earlier gradient-reducing function.
Life is not just a genetic entity. Genes by themselves do nothing more
than salt crystals. Life is an open, cycling system organized by the
laws of thermodynamics. And it is not the only one.
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