What is Life?

Why, Edwin?

I ran across this interesting little “book” a few weeks ago. Based on a series of lectures by Erwin Schrödinger in the 1940’s, What is Life? is a multi-disciplinary look at the physical underpinnings of what it means to be alive.


The book is a curious read, filled with musings on introductory physics and biology that highlight much of the popular science of the day. Today Schrödinger is perhaps best remembered thanks to his “cat”, a descriptive paradox of a possibly ill-fated cat in a box. Like all the great scientists, of course, Schrödinger did much more than inventing unique ways of killing cats.


My favorite soundbite from this book comes near the end, after we’ve visited statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, and used biology to motivate a form of quantum mechanics. We’re treated to this delightful nugget by Schrödinger:

“Life feeds on negative entropy”

In other words, if the universe prefers to be chaotic and in equilibrium, then the most defining characteristic of life is the need to resist the increase of entropy. We need order, we need food. We build things, we adapt to our environment, our bodies maintain form. True disorder and chaos is deadly, yet we fight entropy every day. Entropy always wins in the end, of course.


What is Life? (pdf)

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