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Summary

Seventy years ago, Erwin Schrdinger posed a simple, yet profound, question: What is life?. How could the very existence of such extraordinary chemical systems be understood? This problem has puzzled biologists and physical scientists both before, and ever since. Living things are hugely complex and have unique properties, such as self-maintenance and apparently purposeful behaviour which we do not see in inert matter. So how does chemistry give rise to biology? Did life begin with replicating molecules, and, if so, what could have led the first replicating molecules up such a path? Now, developments in the emerging field of 'systems chemistry' are unlocking the problem. Addy Pross shows how the different kind of stability that operates among replicating entities results in a tendency for certain chemical systems to become more complex and acquire the properties of life. Strikingly, he demonstrates that Darwinian evolution is the biological expression of a deeper and more fundamental chemical principle: the whole story from replicating molecules to complex life is one continuous coherent chemical process governed by a simple definable principle.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your My Library section along with the audio.

©2012, Addy Pross (P)2014 Audible Inc.

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

not that surprising

Heared nothing new....well known theories and ideas redressed with new wording. Not as intetesting as it promisses to be.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Daegan Smith
  • 06-04-15

Profound & Life Changing...

Where does What Is Life? rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This is one of the best audiobooks I've invested in on audible. As a college graduate with a BS in Biology concentrated in neuropharmacology and a minor in chemistry who's favorite course were molecular evolution and organic chemistry this was like going home.

I'd say this as a warning, if you're not familiar with terms like chirality or the process in which genes are expressed this might be a stretch from a comprehension standpoint, but if you are up for the challenge this book is absolutely worth it.

It's worth it anyway. It absolutely makes good on the title in far more comprehensive way than I expected.

For me, if I leave with with far more clarity than I started with on a subject I love, new questions about it that further my personal exploration of the subject, AND profound insights on things in realms far removed from the topic itself, that's what learning is about and that's exactly what this is.

What is life? Well, you'll find the most clear, lucid, quantifiable, and deductively valid answer to that question and a LOT more right here.

The value of the experience and permanent change to my world view FAR outweighs the cost.

43 of 44 people found this review helpful

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  • A. Franco
  • 26-12-15

Flawless narration, great book

Below is my review of the book which I also posted on Amazon (I had the matching ebook). Before that, I just want to say that I found the narration simply flawless, so much so that I went and bought a few more audiobooks narrated by Derek Perkins.

This little book achieves many things:

— It explains why life is a mystery: how did living matter evolve from non-living matter, and how did complexity emerge?
— It offers an overview of the main historical attempts to define life, and explains why life seems to elude any way of defining it.
— It offers an overview of the main attempts to study the origin of life, and where they fell short.
— It offers interesting observations on the relation between physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as the question of reduction vs. holism.
— It gives a primer on fundamental chemical dichotomies such as that between static and dynamic stability, or that between catalytic and auto-catalytic processes. These concepts are essential to understand the concept of life and that of its origin.

The question of the origin of life is in fact twofold. One facet of the question is historical: In what specific way did life emerge? Where, when, and following which steps? The other facet of the question is: What is the driving force behind the emergence of life? By analogy with the image of a boulder rolling down a slope, the first question asks what was the path followed by the boulder, while the second one asks what was the driving force for this movement (which, in the case of this example, was the gravitational force). We may never know the answer to the first question in regard to the origin of life, but the answer to the second one is very likely to come from systems chemistry.

The main message of this book is that the theory of evolution by natural selection is (as foreseen by Darwin himself) a special case of a broader law of stability, one that affects not just living creature but also certain kinds of inanimate matter, namely self-replicating molecules.

There are two very different kinds of chemical stability in the world. Static stability, governed to the second law of thermodynamics, is such that an entity is stable if it persists, if it maintains itself without change over time. On the contrary, dynamic stability is such that its components change, but the pattern remains the same. For instance, the molecules water in a river changes constantly, yet the river persists. The same can be said of the molecules in our body.

Dynamic stability is particularly important in the context of self-replicating (auto-catalytic) molecules. The product of their chemical reaction is not a different kind of molecule, but the same kind of molecule. RNA makes more RNA, DNA makes more DNA, and so on. This is studied by a branch of chemistry called systems chemistry.

The author explains how this process is the key to understanding life and its complexities. Unlike static (thermodynamic) stability, in which molecules do not react, dynamic stability can only persist if there are constant chemical reactions: new building blocks must be sourced constantly in order to keep the replication going. This drive towards dynamic stability takes the form of "complexification": those self-replicating entities which become more complex are better able to replicate and therefore to persist.

This principle guides inanimate self-replicating molecules as well as living organisms. The process by which life originated is not different from the one by which it evolves. They are one and the same, namely: replication, mutation, complexification, selection, evolution. This, incidentally, makes biology a branch of systems chemistry.

Life, says the author, started in earnest when a replicator acquired an energy-gathering capability, i.e. a metabolism. This allowed the replicator to detach itself from the constraints of the second law of thermodynamics and to evolve in pursuit of greater dynamic stability.

What I enjoyed most about this book is that it didn't just teach me stuff I didn't know, but it gave me a new way of thinking about life and its origin. There's great value in being able to look at old things in a fresh way, and I'll probably be musing on the contents of this books for months to come.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • Gabor Butora
  • 21-04-15

Philosophical approach to Chemistry and Biology

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

Maybe someone with more philosophical inclinations, someone who doesn't mind simplification at the expense of accuracy.

What was most disappointing about Addy Pross’s story?

Loosely defined terms and a rather liberal use of definitions (meaning of which should be very clear to a scientist) makes this text ultimately impenetrable to the enthusiast and irritating to the professional. Just one example: the term "autocatalytic" is used consistently in place of "thermodynamically feasible". The big picture isn't right in my view either: a "replicating system" is already far-from-equilibrium thermodynamically, so "Once a molecule (or set of molecules) can successfully replicate itself and acquires some mechanism for harvesting energy from its surroundings, it can break free from the shackles of the second law of thermodynamics" presents a circular argument and even that stated backwards.

Which scene was your favorite?

The good-old example of unplugging the tub and observing the far-from-equilibrium whirlpool forming as a response to free energy dissipation and the Second Law in action came pretty close.

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from What Is Life??

The repetitive ones, for sure.

Any additional comments?

"Was ist Leben?" of Erwin Schroedinger is a masterpiece and i found it a bit presumptuous to paraphrase it.

31 of 37 people found this review helpful

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  • Spring
  • 03-02-15

Reader's style

After listening to the sample, I decided I would have to read this rather than listen. The performance is so emphatic, with emphasis in places I find incongruous, that it distracts from the author's message.

12 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • 20-02-16

Books should be simple but not too simple

The author offers nothing towards answering the title "What is Life" and offers nothing but the most simplistic presentation for addressing the subtitle "How Chemistry Becomes Biology".

When he does address the title, he forces the presentation into his preferred world view of teleonomy (just a fancy way of saying animate objects are teleological and inanimate objects are not, whatever).

He's going to equate maximum efficiency with DKS (dynamic kinetic systems) and explain that life arises from that process.

I did get irritated at the author. He makes the statement along the lines "to understand the what of life, one first needs to know the how it came about, and then take the particular to the general and then make the universal principals before proceeding". I fault that formulation in order for understanding and explaining of nature. (It's a very Kantian formulation of science, and I saw it just as an excuse for the author to not address the title of the book).

The author really added nothing new whatsoever to my understanding of what is life and where did it come from. There was nothing new or novel in this book. Books like this one are why I slowed down reading science books. They need to teach me something new, something I did not already know, and be so good that I want to re-listen to them again for their novel presentations and the new insights they showed me. This book did none of those things.

I wasted my time with this book. I would recommend Hazen's Great Course Lecture, "Origins of Life", Wagner's "Arrival of the Fittest" which considers the topology of the possible maximum efficiency paths which "What is Life" tries to explain from time to time but not adequately, and I would recommend, Rutherford's "Creations: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself", a book which is not too simple and not too complex but explains the things presented in this book as they should have been (and regretfully which seems to have been completely ignored by the reading (and listening) public).

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Charley Yeager
  • 26-06-15

Very capable theory of life developed here.

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Absolutely, if you're very interested in life origin that is. It was a slow boil with the last two chapters carrying the best content.

Which scene was your favorite?

I was constantly impressed to learn how much has been discovered about the replicating behavior of DNA.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

The winding explanation of the difficult (to me) concept of dynamic stability which is responsible for the increasing complexity in living systems was gratifying and very substantive.

Any additional comments?

This book feels current and far ahead of any thing I had previously learned about the subject.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Stephane MacMaster
  • 02-05-16

Excellent book

If you could sum up What Is Life? in three words, what would they be?

Great review on fundamental issues we all think about.

What did you like best about this story?

The journey...from key historical events to where we are today with this key question.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • serine
  • 06-04-16

Good attempt but not quite the answer

I love that Pross tried to take up Schrödinger's, "What is Life" challenge, and I also really like that he attempted to extend our definition of life. Both of those things are necessary if we want to update our theory of evolution. I don't necessarily think he found the answer, but he made some interesting arguments and asked important questions.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Daniel Crumbo
  • 22-08-15

Smart idea, poorly expressed

Important and thought-provoking thesis, but the prose is turgid and self-indulgent. Needs editor or probably a co-author.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • William
  • 06-02-15

High Cost very High Benefit

If you could sum up What Is Life? in three words, what would they be?

Stunning, Deep, and Worth-while.

What other book might you compare What Is Life? to and why?

"The Lessons of History" by Will and Ariel Durant - which also had to be read more than once, and was also well worth it.

Which scene was your favorite?

Chapters 7

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

Chapter 8

Any additional comments?

This book is not light reading, but very much worth the effort it takes to understand Addy Pross's thinking.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful