Biophysics: some reading material

I was very impressed by Schroedinger’s What is life; as is my wont, when I read the book (nearly 12 years ago), I filled a large number of sheets with notes. However, I have never revisited the book — though, on and off, I have been thinking that I should re-read What is life (and, another that I loved and want to re-read is Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology, by the way).

The latest BioMed Central carries a comment piece and a Q&A piece on biophysics, both of which make very interesting reading. In the comment piece by Gratzer, I found the following very interesting commentary about Schroedinger’s book (which is the reason for my renewed interest in re-reading the book — to see how it sounds to me now):

Biophysics was seen, then, as a prop for the serious business of physiology, and it later also became conflated with medical physics, which essentially meant radiology. Hospital physicists would have ranked low in the medical hierarchy and in the esteem of the physics fraternity. The Olympians, such as Bohr (with his obiter dicta on the implication of the Complementarity Principle for biology) and Schrödinger, ruminated languidly on the nature of life, but biologists who, as Peter Medawar put it, ‘operate at the frontier between bewilderment and understanding’, were not generally regarded in such quarters as altogether scientifically house-trained. The Victorian physicist PG Tait spoke of ‘minds debauched by the so-called science of biology’, while for Rutherford there were only physics and stamp-collecting. But then one of their own, no less than Erwin Schrödinger, came out with a slim volume with the modest title, What is Life? It appeared in 1944, a few months before the end of the Second World War, and it received close attention from physicists and physical chemists, many of them wearied by years in war work, and in want of a fresh outlet for their talents. It is remarkable indeed how many of the founders of the new biology were animated by Schrödinger’s little book. For its message was that biology really was physics, despite the apparent conflict between life and thermodynamic imperatives, and especially that the vehicle of heredity, so far from being a kind of intangible essence, would turn out to be an ‘aperiodic crystal’. The concept was never properly defined, but it carried the alluring implication that it might be open to study by established physical methods, most obviously X-ray diffraction.

It was only much later that some of those who had been captivated by Schrödinger’s dissertation began to wonder why they had so uncritically swallowed it all. Max Perutz reflected in 1987 on the author’s sleight of hand: ‘A close study of the book and of the related literature has shown me that what was true of the book was not original, and most of what was original was known not to be true even when it was written’. More, ‘the apparent contradiction between life and the statistical laws of physics can be resolved by a science largely ignored by Schrödinger. That science is chemistry’. Perutz’s strictures, it should be said, did not go unchallenged, and drew, in particular, a lucid response from an eminent geneticist and quondam associate of Schrödinger’s, Neville Symonds. At all events there is no doubting the book’s effect in making biophysics attractive to many and at least halfway respectable. It is curious though that its rise was prefigured in a novel, published in 1934: The Search by CP Snow has for its hero a visionary young physicist who procures funding to set up in London, at a location plainly King’s College, a department of biophysics.

Any case, both the comment and Q&A pieces are worth your while. Have fun!

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