I finished this one a while ago, but I guess I never got around to reviewing it. What is Life? is, of course, a famous work by Erwin Schrödinger, of cat fame.
In it, he argues that chromosomes behave according to physical laws classical physics can’t really approach, since classical physical laws are statistical, and only hold for large numbers of molecules, while a chromosome is in essence just one very large molecule. He speculates that DNA is, in fact, a large aperiodic crystal, and muses about the ways in which it could encode hereditary information.
And yes, it’s all speculation. This was written in 1944, well before the actual structure of DNA became known, and, indeed, long before much of anything was known about genetics. It still speaks about DNA as being the carrier of heredity in the hypothetical, even.
What is Life? was a visionary work, and its influence is undeniable. Even today, it can still inspire people because of the intense sense of curiosity it conveys (Schrödinger was, after all, a theoretical physicist first, but he didn’t let that stop him from delving into this alien field of biology).
As a source of accurate information, though, it’s much more likely to misguide than to educate, at this point, so it really isn’t a book uninformed laypeople should be reading. Still, if you know a bit about genetics and molecular biology, it’s a very interesting read for its historic value.
This edition also contains Mind and Matter, an essay I didn’t bother reading since I figured it would make me angry (especially since Roger Penrose wrote the introduction), and Autobiographical Sketches, in which Schrödinger talks about his life.
This is particularly interesting, since Schrödinger was, after all, a scientist during the World Wars (which is always an interesting topic; just look at Richard Feynman). Moreover, he was Austrian, so he spent much of his time on the side we never really hear first-hand accounts from. It’s nice to hear someone talk about this without the off-hand demonisation we’ve become so used to.