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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Waiting for the Paradox

John Dennehy's citation classic for this week is Gunther Stent's Molecular Biology of Bacterial Viruses [This Week's Citation Classic]. This reminds me of the time when I was an undergraduate in 1966 and I first read about the Phage Group in Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology (1966). The book was a collection of articles by workers who had been influenced by Max Delbrück, on the occasion of his 60th birthday.

A few years later I got to meet most of them at the annual phage meetings in Cold Spring Harbor. It was an exciting time. I remember Stent as one of those people who is so smart it's scary. Little did I know at the time that I was witnessing the end of an era.

Stent's contribution to Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology was an essay with the cryptic title "Waiting for the Paradox." He describes some of the early history of the phage group and Delbrück's attempts to define the gene in 1940. This influenced the physicist Erwin Shrödinger who wrote a famous little book called What is Life?. It stimulated many physicists to enter biology—including Francis Crick.

The key passage from Shrödinger's book is described by Stent. Schrödinger defines an important credo (quoted by Stent) ...
In fact, this credo was probably the most important psychological incentive for physicists to turn to biology in the first place: "From Delbrück's general picture of the hereditary substance it emerges that living matter, while not eluding the 'laws of physics' as established up to date, is likely to involve 'other laws of physics' hitherto unknown which, however, once they have been revealed will form just as integral part of this science as the former." Thus it was the romantic idea that 'other laws of physics' might be discovered by studying the gene that really fascinated the physicists. This search for the physical paradox, this quixotic hope that genetics would prove incomprehensible within the framework of conventional physical knowledge, remained an important element of the psychological infrastructure of the creators of molecular biology. [my emphasis - LAM]
By 1966 it was clear that no new laws were going to be discovered although there was still the hope that something mysterious was going on inside the brain. Some people were still waiting for the paradox.

Today we teach our students that the most remarkable thing about biology is that life obeys the laws of physics and chemistry.

[Photo Credit: The book cover shows the 1992 expanded edition of Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology. A new Centennial Edition is due out next month.]


  1. A large heap of thanks, Larry! I'm awfully bad at the history of my field outside the "frame" of key results and kept theory. So I had no idea what motivated some physicists over to biology during that period. (Or rather, I erroneously presumed they were motivated by Fisher et al mathematical models.)

    Btw, do you know of any books describing this socio-scientific movement? Or is it a task that no historian of science has tackled yet?

  2. By far my favourite essay in Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology is Andre Lwoff's "The Prophage and I". It''s a delight.

  3. Physics does not always lend itself to a good understanding of biology :) I reviewed one of Hawking's books that had this little gem in it:

    "I think that the human race, and its DNA, will increase in complexity quite rapidly."

    You've got Penrose with an entire book, from what I understand, trying to figure there are quantum effects in the brain... well, I'll let you look at this silliness for yourself.

    Table 1 with Problematic Feature of Consciousness versus Possible Quantum Solutions just hurts my brain. Or maybe it puts my brain into a superposition of hurt/not hurt until someone here views my comment ;)

    Then there's Hoyle with the tornado in a junkyard misunderstanding.

    Are there famous physics folks who actually get biology? :)

  4. Ritchie Annand asks,

    Are there famous physics folks who actually get biology? :)

    I doubt it. Biology is a lot harder than physics but physicists will never admit that.

  5. hehe good one larry! I don't doubt that biology's messier but the very sharpest minds tend to be attracted to physics nonetheless.

  6. Physicist make no head in biology because they terrorize if their feet stop touching the ground. For biology, you have to know how to swim.

  7. Biology is a lot harder than physics but physicists will never admit that.

    I think lots of physicists will agree that biology is harder and/or more complex than physics. They just don't write books about it.

    hehe good one larry! I don't doubt that biology's messier but the very sharpest minds tend to be attracted to physics nonetheless.

    I'm sure you wouldn't apply that to all physicists ;) More importantly, there are different kinds of 'sharpness', For biology, you have to know how to swim.

    The most mathematical and reductionist types often prefer physics. In biology you can be as empirical or as analytical as you please, but it really helps to be able to get the point of large amounts of data without an equation to show you the answer.

    ... sharpest ... attracted to physics...

    School science does it. Science is taught in reverse, from the complex to the simple. Meanwhile you study biology before you have the scientific maturity to grasp concepts and relate them sensibly to large amounts of data, and before you have much math, so that gets left out.

    Imagine education going Physics (at same time as Geometry perhaps), then Larry's field, then biology!

    Pete Dunkelberg

  8. Anonymous1 again

    I was completely unaware of this perception amongst biologists! I
    know a lot of physicists and they tend to take the view that people who do biology/chemistry etc. tend to do so because they love science but can't quite manage the mathematical complexity involved in theoretical physics. Furthermore they see this ability to appreciate the meaning of large amounts of data as something which they have and the mathematicians that don't.

    Best of both worlds!

  9. Anonymous says,

    ... the very sharpest minds tend to be attracted to physics nonetheless

    I don't think that's true. What I think is true is that some sharp minds in physics can make a significant contribution to theoretical physics whereas in biology having a sharp mind is only part of the requirement. Furthermore, it's very hard to make a singular contribution to biology.

    In can think of dozens of very smart people in biology. Some of them tackled very difficult problems so they didn't become famous.

    Right now the smartest undergraduates are not going into physics, at least in my experience. Of course they're not going into biology either, but that's another story ...

  10. Hi Larry,

    I hope they're not going into economics!

    Just to add to the mix, there was this provocative post by Harvard physicist Lubos Motl:


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  13. This is a really interesting issue. I disagree about finding new physics in biology though. It's true that biology has so far been found to be consistent with all the known laws of physics and I think Schroedinger anticipated that in his comment with "while not eluding the 'laws of physics' as established up to date." However, I think what he meant by new laws of physics wasn't that biology would reinvent quantum mechanics, but that new physical principles would be required to fully understand biology. That is true and the developments in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics are a testament to that.

    I think as more physicists really try to understand biology (as opposed to just making ignorant statements about it--they sometimes do, as pointed out by some of the above commenters) we will see more new physics motivated by biology.

  14. Joseph Schartz says (if my memory not fails) that Delbruck's paradox is not quite that "new laws" were thought to be needed, but rather about reductionism versus holism.

    You can't guess what an organism is from DNA structure alone (not without prior knowledge of organism's genomes), the whole context in which the DNA is inserted play a major role, the organism is a very complex system that is not common on "non-biological" phyisics, where this sort of context is not as important. There's no DNA for formation of planets and this sort of things; "just physics" phenomena are somewhat more predictable, somewhat less dependant of a complex history or context.

    A similar thing happens with the brain, in which you can't tell, for instance, which language a people talks by analyzing their brain, it's not from DNA or its resulting phenotype.

    Albeit nothing of this disobbeys any law of physics, it's somewhat odd from the normal "common sense" of the thought used to "just physicis" that the whole context would play such a large role, and from that results things like obsolete degrees of molecular determinsm put forward by people such as James Watson (i.e.: women and black people being genetically dumber).