Schrödinger 1944 Cambridge Univ Press

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Schrödinger E (1944) What is life? The physical aspect of the living cell. Cambridge Univ Press (1st edition).


Schroedinger E (1944) Cambridge Univ Press

Abstract: Schrödinger E (1967) What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. Cambridge Univ Press (2nd edition)

Bioblast editor: Gnaiger E

Some citations

  • When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on 'doing something', moving, exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect an inanimate piece of matter to 'keep going' under similar circumstances. When a system that is not alive is isolated or placed in a uniform environment, all motion usually comes to a standstill very soon as a result of various kinds of friction70. These ultimate slow approaches to equilibrium could never be mistaken for life, and we may disregard them here.
  • 'Entropy taken with a negative sign' is not my invention. It happens to be precisely the thing on which Boltzmann's original argument turned.
  • The remarks on negative entropy have met with doubt and opposition from physicist colleagues. Let me say first, that if I had been catering for them alone I should have let the discussion turn on free (Gibbs) energy instead. It is the more familiar notion in this context. But this highly technical term seemed linguistically too near to energy for making the average reader alive to the contrast between the two things. He is likely to take free as more or less an epitheton ornans without much relevance, while actually the concept is a rather intricate one, whose relation to Boltzmann's order-disorder principle is less easy to trace than for entropy.
  • We said before: 'It feeds upon negative entropy', attracting, as it were, a stream of negative entropy upon itself, to compensate the entropy increase it produces by living and thus to maintain itself on a stationary and fairly low entropy level.
  • It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state of 'equilibrium', that an organism appears so enigmatic; so much so, that from the earliest times of human thought some special non-physical or supernatural force (vis viva, entelechy) was claimed to be operative in the organism, and in some quarters is still claimed. How does the living organism avoid decay? The obvious answer is: By eating, drinking, breathing and (in the case of plants) assimilating. The technical term is called metabolism.
  • An organism's astonishing gift of concentrating a 'stream of order' on itself and thus escaping the decay into atomic chaos - of 'drinking orderliness' from a suitable environment - seems to be connected with the presence of the 'aperiodic solids', the chromosome molecules, which doubtless represent the highest degree of well-ordered atomic association we know of - much higher than the ordinary periodic crystal - in virtue of the individual role every atom and every radical is playing here.
  • To put it briefly, we witness the event that existing order displays the power of maintaining itself and of producing orderly events. That sounds plausible enough, though in finding it plausible we, no doubt, draw on experience concerning social organization and other events which involve the activity of organisms. And so it might seem that something like a vicious circle is implied. - [a dragon biting its tail, the Oroboros*]

A brief reading list

» Oroboros 25 years - since 1992
  • Gnaiger E (1994) Negative entropy for living systems: controversy between Nobel Laureates Schrödinger, Pauling and Perutz. In: What is Controlling Life? (Gnaiger E, Gellerich FN, Wyss M, eds) Modern Trends in BioThermoKinetics 3. Innsbruck Univ Press: 62-70. - »Bioblast link«

Cited by

Gnaiger 2020 BEC MitoPathways

Gnaiger E (2020) Mitochondrial pathways and respiratory control. An introduction to OXPHOS analysis. 5th ed. Bioenerg Commun 2020.2:112 pp. doi:10.26124/bec:2020-0002


Made history, BEC 2020.2