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What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology Reprint Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195383416
ISBN-10: 0195383419
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

As scientists come closer to creating artificial life, the very definition of life is ever more elusive. Science writer Regis (The Biology of Doom) tackles this large issue and more in a book that never quite finds its focus. By selecting the same title as Nobel laureate Erwin Schrodinger's 1945 classic and Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan's 2000 offering, Regis self-consciously situates his book as a response to theirs. He is, however, no more successful than they were in answering the central question, though he proposes cell metabolism as the best definition we currently have. Regis discusses current attempts to use new techniques to create entities that could be considered living, but he fails to tell a compelling story about either the progress being made or the medical implications of these efforts. Instead, he heads off on several well-traveled tangents presenting relatively simple explanations of how we've come to our understanding of DNA, basic metabolic pathways and evolutionary biology. Although he touches on the fact that being able to distinguish animate from inanimate entities is of critical philosophical importance for debates over such issues as abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia, he never does more than scratch the surface of any of these topics. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

To the question posed in the title, science writer Regis provides this answer: an embodied metabolism. The title honors the 1944 science classic by physicist Erwin Schrödinger, of wave/particle duality fame. When Schrödinger posed the question, he meant to set an agenda––DNA had not yet been identified as the genetic carrier molecule. Regis’ purpose in asking it seems motivated by the incipient creation of life from scratch, and, putting aside the ethics and biological danger of this portentous landmark in human history, seeks to furnish informed readers with a framework for deciding for themselves when scientists have crossed the finish line. Setting the tone by profiling a team running the artificial-life race, Regis presents their research program for bringing up baby, then reverts to a historical summary of the revolution in molecular biology. Covering its major discoveries, Regis devotes as much time to metabolism as to the more glamorous DNA story. Venturing that aliveness is more a philosophical than a scientific matter, Regis offers timely preparation for thought about big science headlines to come. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (May 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195383419
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195383416
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 0.6 x 5.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,195,412 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I had hoped to get from this short book a probing, thoughtful, current answer to the title question, especially given the subtitle of "In the Age of Synthetic Biology". I was disappointed: this is a brief and generalized historical survey. The end footnotes and bibliographical references are valuable, though, for guided further reading.

Regis says that Schrödinger in 1943 "discreetly refrained from answering" the question. If so, then Regis has refrained as well. Here is how Schrödinger answered the question in 1943: "What is the characteristic feature of life? When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on 'doing something', moving, exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect of an inanimate piece of matter to 'keep going' under similar circumstances." I.e., metabolism and negative entropy over long stretches of time. Here is how Regis summarizes things 65 years later: "A reasonable answer ... seems to be: an embodied metabolism." Hardly different from Schrödinger, and less illuminating. Regis defines the essential term "embodied" only through a quote in a footnote buried at the end of the book: wrapped in a membrane, like a cell is.

To my mind, Regis is wrong and unfair to dismiss Margulis and Sagan's multiple, accumulating, descriptive answers in their 1995 book of the same title as being "figurative, flowery, or metaphorical ... entirely too many answers." Here is how Margulis and Sagan answer the fundamental question: "Life itself is these [metabolic] patterns of chemical conservation in a universe tending toward heat loss and disintegration", i.e. essentially the same definition as Schrödinger.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a great introduction to this study and maybe enough for most folks.
The author takes you from science to mystery and back to science.
The study is not new and will continue longer than I or you will exist and it continues to be interesting.
This book is a great base to support your deeper understanding of this deep subject.
Enjoy.
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Format: Hardcover
In 1944, Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger published a book with the same name as the current volume: "What Is Life?"

Popular science writer Ed Regis points out that Schroedinger "wanted to challenge the notion that at the core of life was some impalpable excrescence that lay beyond the grasp of science."

This optimistic view holds that life can be explained in the same terms, and by the same laws of physics and chemistry, as those that pertain to everything else in nature. To be sure, life is exceptional, but it is rule-governed and law-abiding; there is nothing inherently magical or mystical about it. Ultimately, scientists will be able to unravel all of life's mysteries.

Present-day scientists are not so sanguine. The question, "What Is life?", Regis suggests, lies more in the realm of religion, philosophy, and metaphysics--and by extension, politics and ethics--than in the realm of science.

At first glance, a tangential approach to the question, "What is life?" promises a satisfying solution: "Unquestionably, if there was anything that appeared obvious about what it meant to be alive, it was possessing the ability to die."

One's hopeful expectations of an answer, however, are dashed by this consideration: There is no agreement concerning what death is. In between life and death there is often "a state of near-death, or pseudo-life."

If one insists on a scientific answer, Regis suggests the following, "Defining life as embodied metabolism . . . seems to be the most defensible theory we have at the present."

If you expect a definitive answer to the question "What is life?", this book will disappoint you.

Ed Regis holds a Ph.D.
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Format: Hardcover
The recent book by Ed Regis, "What is Life? Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology", may be considered the third of a series. In 1945, Edwin Schrodinger, of the "Schrodinger Equation" that can (with strenuous labor) calculate the properties of any atom's electron cloud, and whose eponymous Cat defines the dilemma of quantum phenomena in a macroscopic world, wrote "What is life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell", in which he did not answer the title question, but explored life phenomena from a strictly chemical and physical aspect. He predicted crucial aspects of the genetic code a decade or two in advance of their discovery. Then in 1995 Lynn Margulis brought certain of the same themes more up to date in "What is Life?", shortly thereafter revised and reprinted with her son Dorian Sagan as co-author. As Ed Regis reports, Margulis and Sagan answered the question in so many ways that it is not answered at all.

Author Regis begins his book with a look at the formation of a four-way consortium in 2002, with the aim of specifically creating a living cell not based on previously living matter. To date, the effort has not succeeded, but as Edison would have said, they are learning a great number of things that don't work...and a few that offer tantalizing clues to what might work. So much so, that the government is now interested, as evidenced by the Los Alamos Protocells web site (protocells.lanl.gov) and its link to protocell.org, a jumping-off place to a handful of major efforts in the Synthetic Life arena.

Regis does home in on an answer, a minimalist definition that life is "embodied metabolism".
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