What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell by Erwin Schroedinger

By Erwin Schroedinger


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How often do we still hear that quantum effects can have little relevance in the study of biology, or even that we eat food in order to gain energy? This serves to emphasize the continuing relevance that Schrödinger's What is Life? has for us today. It is amply worth rereading! ROGER PENROSE 8 AUGUST 1991 Preface A scientist is supposed to have a complete and thorough knowledge, at first hand, of some subjects and, therefore, is usually expected not to write on any topic of which he is not a master.

The laws of physics and physical chemistry are inaccurate within a probable relative error of the order of 1/√n, where n is the number of molecules that co-operate to bring about that law to produce its validity within such regions of space or time (or both) that matter, for some considerations or for some particular experiment. You see from this again that an organism must have a comparatively gross structure in order to enjoy the benefit of fairly accurate laws, both for its internal life and for its interplay with the external world.

That number is much too small (from the ### point of view) to entail an orderly and lawful behaviour according to statistical physics and that means according to physics. It is too small, even if all these atoms played the same role, as they do in a gas or in a drop of liquid. And the gene is most certainly not just a homogeneous drop of liquid. It is probably a large protein molecule, in which every atom, every radical, every heterocyclic ring plays an individual role, more or less different from that played by any of the other similar atoms, radicals, or rings.

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