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From Matter to Self-Organizing Life

时间:2013-10-13 07:42:31  来源:  作者:

 Science

Vol. 342 no. 6154 pp. 39-40
DOI: 10.1126/science.1243730
  • Books et al.

Physics and Biology

From Matter to Self-Organizing Life

  1. Arne Traulsen

+ Author Affiliations

From Strange Simplicity to Complex Familiarity A Treatise on Matter, Information, Life, and Thought by Manfred Eigen Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013. 754 pp. $225, £125. ISBN 9780198570219.
  1. The reviewer is at Evolutionary Theory Group, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, August-Thienemann-Strasse 2, 24306 Plön, Germany.
  1. E-mail: traulsen@evolbio.mpg.de

Writing a book that reaches from elementary particle physics to natural selection is an ambitious task—either it becomes a too–Short History of Nearly Everything, or we learn to see the world through someone's personal New Kind of Science (1, 2). In his treatise From Strange Simplicity to Complex Familiarity, which he has worked on for 15 years, the Nobelist Manfred Eigen does not approach either of these apparent attractors. Instead, Eigen (Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry) aims to integrate current scientific knowledge from different fields to show that evolution is a physical process based on clear physical laws. But he also anticipates the criticism of the late Ernst Mayr, noting “Asking for a physical law behind Darwin's principle does not imply an attempt to make the whole process of evolution ‘calculable.’” From the first pages, you can feel Eigen's elation for the natural sciences. He writes about elementary principles of physics with a young scientist's enthusiasm for his own field—not being an expert in particle physics, he simply states “I trust these people.”

The book weaves together five chapters (“Matter and Energy,” “Energy and Entropy,” “Entropy and Information,” “Information and Complexity,” and “Complexity and Self-Organisation”), each organized into ten questions. Some of the questions are of the kind that kids would ask: “How many trees make a wood?” or “How large is zero?” But most kids will not understand the answers that Eigen offers. He supposes that the reader has a solid general education in the natural sciences, tacitly assuming familiarity with concepts from statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, biochemistry, and genetics. But after technically demanding parts, the author always comes back to basic principles, allowing even readers having a less solid background to easily follow the main line of thought. They will find additional help in the appendices, written by Eigen and other experts, which provide some insight into the most important technical issues. (One appendix courageously presents an entirely verbal characterization of phase transitions.)

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