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(Brenner, Sydney) Schrödinger, Erwin

What Is Life?

  • First edition, first impression of this key work in the history of molecular biology and the study of DNA. From the library of Nobel prize-winning molecular biologist Sydney Brenner, with his ownership inscription on the front free endpaper, “Sydney Brenner, 25 June 1945”, together with a quotation by Faraday: "Let the imagination go, guiding it by judgement and principle, but holding it in and directing it by experiment. Faraday, 1858". Although the two hands are different, both may be by Brenner, as he discusses this inscription and its relevance at length in his biography (see below).

    Sydney Brenner (1927 - ) has been a leader in the field of genetics almost from the moment he received his doctorate at Oxford in 1954. He joined Francis Crick’s laboratory in 1956, and they did groundbreaking research on how DNA is decoded by cells. Brenner proposed that the nucleotides which comprise DNA (adenine, guanine, thiamine and cytosine) are read by the cell in sets of three called codons, with each codon representing an amino acid (for example, three adenines in a row is the codon for the amino acid lysine). A gene is simply a string of codons that directs the production of a protein molecule from individual amino acids. He also correctly predicted the existence of messenger RNA, the molecule that carries the genetic code from the nucleus to the ribosomes, where the translation process occurs.

    Following this work, it was Brenner’s efforts to establish a new laboratory organism for the study of genetics that led to his Nobel Prize. “Beginning in 1965, he began to lay the groundwork to make C. elegans, a small, transparent nematode, into a major model organism for genetics, neurobiology and developmental biology research. As a direct result of his original vision, this tiny worm became the first animal for which the complete cell lineage and entire neuronal wiring were known. Today, more than 1,000 investigators are studying C. elegans, and Brenner’s work was further honored when a closely related nematode was named Caenorhabditis brenneri” (Salk Institute biography).

    What Is Life? introduced an entire generation of biologists to molecular biology, and inspired Watson and Crick to begin researching the structure of DNA. Author Erwin Schrödinger was a leading physicist who made important contributions to the development of quantum theory in the first half of the 20th century, and today he is best known to the public for his paradoxical thought experiment in which a cat is neither alive nor dead. But Schrödinger was also a polymath with wide-ranging interests in other scientific fields, as well as history and philosophy. This text, his major contribution to biology, was based on a series of public lectures given at Trinity College, Dublin in 1943. Here Schrödinger discusses molecular theories and how they should be applied to the study of living things, particularly in the case of the genetic material, which was still poorly understood. Most importantly, he makes predications about how the genetic molecule should be structured and interact at its most fundamental level. At the end of the book he muses on the intersection of philosophy, quantum mechanics, and human will - a subject that is still intensely debated.

    "Schrödinger's book had an enormous influence, not only upon physicists who were persuaded that their methods might solve the problems of biology, but also among biologists who were encouraged to think more rigorously in terms of mathematically formulated and physically testable models. It was translated into seven languages and the total sales are estimated as over 100,000 copies" (Moore, Schrödinger: Life and Thought, pp. 403-404). The work was so influential in part because during the 1940s most biologists "were quite unaware of the nature of chemical bonds, the Second Law of Thermodynamics as applied to open systems, and the theory of reaction rates, subjects then to be found only in graduate courses in physical chemistry. What is Life? had a determining influence on the career of James Watson. He read the book in the spring of 1946, while he was an undergraduate at Chicago and undecided what to do and where to go for graduate work. 'From the moment I read Schrödinger's What is Life? I became polarized towards finding out the secret of the gene'... Francis Crick thought the book was 'peculiarity influential' and 'attracted people who might otherwise not have entered biology at all... No doubt molecular biology would have developed without What is Life?, but it would have been at a slower pace, and without some of its brightest stars. There is no other instance in the history of science in which such a short semipopular book catalyzed the future development of a great field of research" (Moore, pp. 403-404).

    At the time this book was published, Brenner was still completing his bachelor’s degree in anatomy and physiology in South Africa, and it is tempting to think that, as for many other other young scientists, the text was the catalyst that inspired him to study DNA. But in an interview published as A Life in Science in 1997, Brenner says that, “So of course during this period every one of one’s colleagues has always said that the book that influenced them most is What Is Life? A little book written by Erwin Schrödinger which you know, which people say ‘Were it not for Schrödinger, I would be playing the violin and collecting money in an underground station in the Tube.’ And I actually read this book myself and in fact I have a copy here which you can see was bought in 1944, so I’d read this at a very early stage and I must say that I don’t recall getting anything out of it in terms of what other people have got, namely that it introduced them to the concept of the gene as a molecule and so on. I remember reading it as very interesting, of course I knew all about genes and chromosomes and this stuff seemed to me to be a bit amateur. I didn’t understand the Entropy part of the argument but in fact I have an inscription in my book which is a quotation from Faraday, which says something and must be my impression of it at the time, and it says here [see above paragraph]... So that is just the evidence it says well, it’s a great story, but where are the experiments to tell you that it’s true? And I think that—which is written there at the time—just says what—this influenced me, and I think it’s been very important, at least in my approach, which is that you’ve got to really find out. The difference between having a correct theory and a true theory, that is a theory which reflects reality. You’ve got to go and actually go back to nature and that’s what this is saying”.

  • ...The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. Based on lectures delivered under the auspices of the Institute at Trinity College, Dublin, in February 1943.

    Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944.

    Octavo. Original green cloth, titles to spine gilt. 4 illustrations on 2 plates, one of which is in colour. Ink stamp of the People’s Bookshop, Johannesburg, to the inner flap of the jacket, Brenner's ownership inscription and a Faraday quotation in ink on the front free endpaper. Binding a little rubbed and bumped at the extremities. A very good copy in the rubbed and tanned jacket which is lacking about half of the spine panel, and has a small chip from the lower panel. The upper panel is cleanly separated from the spine, and there are ink marks where a previous owner may have traced the author’s name and the first letter of the title with a pen.

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