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Schrödinger’s What Is Life? at 75

Phillips, Rob (2021) Schrödinger’s What Is Life? at 75. Cell Systems, 12 (6). pp. 465-476. ISSN 2405-4712. doi:10.1016/j.cels.2021.05.013.

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2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the publication of Erwin Schrödinger’s What Is Life?, a short book described by Roger Penrose in his preface to a reprint of this classic as “among the most influential scientific writings of the 20th century.” In this article, I review the long argument made by Schrödinger as he mused on how the laws of physics could help us understand “the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism.” Though Schrödinger’s book is often hailed for its influence on some of the titans who founded molecular biology, this article takes a different tack. Instead of exploring the way the book touched biologists such as James Watson and Francis Crick, as well as its critical reception by others such as Linus Pauling and Max Perutz, I argue that Schrödinger’s classic is a timeless manifesto, rather than a dated historical curiosity. What Is Life? is full of timely outlooks and approaches to understanding the mysterious living world that includes and surrounds us and can instead be viewed as a call to arms to tackle the great unanswered challenges in the study of living matter that remain for 21st century science.

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Phillips, Rob0000-0003-3082-2809
Additional Information:© 2021 Published by Elsevier Inc. Available online 16 June 2021. I am especially grateful to David Booth who kindly suggested that I undertake this labor of love and to Christina Hueschen with whom I have repeatedly discussed Schrödinger’s classic book over the last several years. My biggest debt in learning about the confluence of biology and physics is to my book co-authors Jane Kondev, Julie Theriot, Hernan Garcia, Christina Hueschen, Ron Milo, Wallace Marshall, and Thomas Lecuit. In addition, I have learned so much about physics, biology, and their intersection from a veritable who’s who of deep thinkers on the state of the art in modern science. For either their direct or indirect help with this article, I want to especially thank Clarice Aiello, Howard Berg, Bill Bialek, Curt Callan, Anders Carlsson, Griffin Chure, Ken Dill, Ethan Garner, Bill Gelbart, Lea Goentoro, Ray Goldstein, Stephan Grill, Christoph Haselwandter, Hopi Hoekstra, Joe Howard, Tony Hyman, Sri Iyer-Biswas, Quincey Justman, Marc Kirschner, Heun Jin Lee, Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Niko McCarty, Madhav Mani, Tim Mitchison, Chris Miller, Andrew Murray, Phil Nelson, Hirosi Ooguri, Mariela Petkova, Molly Phillips, Steve Quake, Manuel Razo, Udo Seifert, Pierre Sens, Lubert Stryer, Mark Uline, Ron Vale, Aleks Walczak, Jon Widom, Chris Wiggins, Ned Wingreen, and Carl Zimmer. I am grateful to all of these impressive thinkers for useful discussions and/or commenting on the manuscript, though the views expressed here should not be blamed on them. I am also grateful to the NIH for support through award numbers DP1OD000217 (Director’s Pioneer Award) and R01 GM085286. The trust and financial support of this great institution make it possible for today’s scientists to grapple with the endless fascination of trying to answer Schrödinger’s classic question, “what is life?”.
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NIHR01 GM085286
Issue or Number:6
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20210629-200149422
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Official Citation:Rob Phillips, Schrödinger’s What Is Life? at 75, Cell Systems, Volume 12, Issue 6, 2021, Pages 465-476, ISSN 2405-4712, (
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:109651
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:29 Jun 2021 22:40
Last Modified:29 Jun 2021 22:40

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