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What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology

Popular Science

Series: Oxford Landmark Science

By: Addy Pross(Author)

208 pages, 10 b/w illustrations

Oxford University Press

Paperback | May 2016 | Edition: 2 | #227626 | ISBN-13: 9780198784791
Availability: Usually dispatched within 48 hours
NHBS Price: £9.99 $13/€11 approx

About this book

Seventy years ago, Erwin Schrödinger posed a profound question: 'What is life, and how did it emerge from non-life?' This problem has puzzled biologists and physical scientists 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? 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 molecules results in a tendency for 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, well-defined chemical concept: the whole story from replicating molecules to complex life is one continuous process governed by an underlying physical principle. The gulf between biology and the physical sciences is finally becoming bridged.

This new edition includes an Epilogue describing developments in the concepts of fundamental forms of stability discussed in What is Life?, and their profound implications.

Oxford Landmark Science books are 'must-read' classics of modern science writing which have crystallized big ideas, and shaped the way we think.

Reviews from the previous edition:

"A stimulating and thought-provoking read, [which] provides a sound chemical framework for considering the various theories and strands of research directed towards understanding the ultimate question – what is life?"
Chemistry World

"I don't pretend to understand the chemistry – but by using analogies about boulders rolling down hills, and cars driving up them, Pross does a good job of explaining the principle."
– Brandon Robshaw, Independent on Sunday

"Addy Pross's growing sense of excitement is palpable in this lucid, thoughtful, and accessible exploration of the very foundations of that most exquisite and extraordinary property of matter, life."
– Peter Atkins

"Strikingly, [Pross] 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."
– GrrlScientist blog

"A thoughtful and readable manifesto Pross gets high marks for his effort to demystify genesis and put chemistry in its place."
– Franklin M. Harold, Microbe, Volume 8 Number 3

"A lively, intellectually stimulating examination of profound scientific and philosophic questions. It provides an intriguing and possibly plausible way to think about life and its origins. It provides much food for constructive thought."
Chemical and Engineering News

"A fascinating and insightful read. It has utility and enjoyment value to readers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Definitely food for thought."
– Niles Lehman, Trends in Evolutionary Biology

"By formulating a new stability kind in nature, Addy Pross has uncovered the chemical roots of Darwinian theory, thereby opening a novel route connecting biology to chemistry and physics. This book is more than worth reading – it stirs the readers mind and paves the way toward the birth of further outstanding ideas."
– Ada Yonath, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

Related titles

See the previous edition

What is Life?

Seventy years ago, Erwin Schrödinger posed a profound question:...

NHBS Price: £9.99 $13/€11 approx


1: Living things are so very strange
2: Historic quest for a theory of life
3: Understanding 'understanding'
4: Stability and instability
5: The knotty origin of life problem
6: Biology's crisis of identity
7: Biology is chemistry
8: What is Life?
References and Notes

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Addy Pross received a Ph.D in Organic Chemistry from Sydney University in 1970. He is currently a Professor of Chemistry at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and a recognized authority in the area of chemical reactivity to which he contributed with the highly cited and acclaimed Pross-Shaik model of chemical reactivity. He has held visiting positions in many universities word-wide, including the University of Lund, Stanford University, Rutgers University, University of California at Irvine, University of Padova, the Australian National University Canberra, and Sydney University. He has served on the editorial board of chemical and biological journals and a variety of academic management boards. In recent years he has directed his attention to the biological arena where he has applied his expertise in chemical reactivity to the Origin of Life problem and the broader question of the problematic chemistry-biology interface.

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