What is Life? Book Summary - What is Life? Book explained in key points
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What is Life? summary

Erwin Schrödinger

With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches

4.4 (292 ratings)
25 mins

Brief summary

What is Life?, by Erwin Schrödinger, is an exploration of the basic principles of biology and physics. Written for a general audience, it explores the connections between genetics, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics in order to understand the fundamental nature of life.

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    What is Life?
    Summary of 7 key ideas

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    Living bodies can’t be affected by the activities of single atoms.

    Schrödinger started off his lectures by asking his audience a simple question: Why are atoms so small? Or – and this is really the same question but from a different perspective – why are we humans, and all other living organisms, so ridiculously large compared to the tiny atoms we’re made up of? And just to be clear, atoms are really, really, really tiny. The size of a single atom ranges from 1/5000 to 1/2000 of the wavelength of yellow light. This is important because this wavelength is roughly the size of the smallest possible grain you can detect in a regular microscope – well, at least back in 1943, when Schrödinger delivered this lecture. So, even with the most state of the art microscope in 1943, the tiniest thing you could see would still contain thousands of millions of atoms!

    So, why are atoms so small? Well, for any organism to function properly, it relies on its parts to behave in an orderly way and obey strict physical laws. 

    And this is precisely where things get a bit hairy, because, individually, atoms behave in a pretty disorderly way; they’re constantly vibrating and producing energy. In fact, the behavior of a single atom, or a small number of atoms, doesn’t obey any recognizable physical laws. It’s only when you have a large enough number of them that they start to behave according to statistical laws.

    There are many examples of this. Magnetism is a good one. If you fill an oblong quartz tube with oxygen gas and put it into a magnetic field, the gas is magnetized and⁠ the oxygen molecules orient themselves parallel to the field like the needle of a compass. However – and this is important – not every oxygen atom changes its orientation. The atoms only orient in the direction of the field on average –⁠ as a group.

    Alternatively, consider a light object suspended by a long thin fiber. Physicists often use these in experiments to measure weak forces like electricity and magnetism, which can work to alter the position of the body. As physicists experiment with lighter and lighter bodies, those bodies reveal themselves to be susceptible to weaker and weaker electric or magnetic forces. Eventually, the body performs a constant and irregular dance around its neutral resting, or equilibrium, position.

    This example is especially helpful because it shows how the human body would cease to function if all the atoms inside it were constantly responding to all the forces operating on them at a given moment. For an organism to benefit from the statistical laws that govern large groups of atoms, its body must be large in comparison to its atoms.

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    What is What is Life? about?

    What is Life? (1944) is a classic scientific text based on a series of lectures given at Trinity College, Dublin, by famous physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Though Schrödinger was a physicist, these lectures addressed issues in biology and genetics –⁠ primarily the fundamental question of how physics and chemistry can account for the processes that occur within living organisms. The concepts he explored went on to spark a revolution in genetics, inspiring, among others, the biologists James D. Watson and Francis Crick, who together proposed the double helix structure of DNA.

    Who should read What is Life??

    • Science geeks
    • Big-picture thinkers, ponderers, and questioners
    • Anyone who loves getting to the bottom of how the universe works

    About the Author

    Erwin Schrödinger, known in popular culture for his “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment, was one of the most influential physicists of all time. He won the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his advances in atomic theory, made significant contributions to the field of quantum theory, and wrote on a wide range of other topics related to physics. He’s one of several physicists frequently referred to as “the father of quantum mechanics.”

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