What is Life?
Author: E. Schrödinger
Published: 1944
Revision ID: 1998
URL: http://hkilter.com/index.php?title=What_is_Life%3F
Short URL: http://goo.gl/tR17Qw

The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell.

Based on lectures delivered under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, in February 1943.


A scientist is supposed to have a complete and thorough I of knowledge, at first hand, of some subjects and, therefore, is usually expected not to write on any topic of which he is not a life, master. This is regarded as a matter of noblesse oblige. For the present purpose I beg to renounce the noblesse, if any, and to be the freed of the ensuing obligation. My excuse is as follows: We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge. The very name given to the highest institutions of learning reminds us, that from antiquity to and throughout many centuries the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in and width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge by during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true who aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them -and at the risk of making fools of ourselves. So much for my apology. The difficulties of language are not negligible. One's native speech is a closely fitting garment, and one never feels quite at ease when it is not immediately available and has to be replaced by another. My thanks are due to Dr Inkster (Trinity College, Dublin), to Dr Padraig Browne (St Patrick's College, Maynooth) and, last but not least, to Mr S. C. Roberts. They were put to great trouble to fit the new garment on me and to even greater trouble by my occasional reluctance to give up some 'original' fashion of my own. Should some of it have survived the mitigating tendency of my friends, it is to be put at my door, not at theirs. The head-lines of the numerous sections were originally intended to be marginal summaries, and the text of every chapter should be read in continuo. E.S.

Dublin September 1944

Homo liber nulla de re minus quam de morte cogitat; et ejus sapientia non mortis sed vitae meditatio est. SPINOZA'S Ethics, Pt IV, Prop. 67

(There is nothing over which a free man ponders less than death; his wisdom is, to meditate not on death but on life.)

Chapter 1: The Classical Physicist's Approach to the Subject

This little book arose from a course of public lectures, delivered by a theoretical physicist to an audience of about four hundred which did not substantially dwindle, though warned at the outset that the subject-matter was a difficult one and that the lectures could not be termed popular, even though the physicist’s most dreaded weapon, mathematical deduction, would hardly be utilized. The reason for this was not that the subject was simple enough to be explained without mathematics, but rather that it was much too involved to be fully accessible to mathematics. Another feature which at least induced a semblance of popularity was the lecturer's intention to make clear the fundamental idea, which hovers between biology and physics, to both the physicist and the biologist. For actually, in spite of the variety of topics involved, the whole enterprise is intended to convey one idea only -one small comment on a large and important question. In order not to lose our way, it may be useful to outline the plan very briefly in advance. The large and important and very much discussed question is: How can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry? The preliminary answer which this little book will endeavor to expound and establish can be summarized as follows: The obvious inability of present-day physics and chemistry to account for such events is no reason at all for doubting that they can be accounted for by those sciences.