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What Is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  739 ratings  ·  96 reviews
Seventy years ago, Erwin Schrodinger 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 r
Hardcover, 200 pages
Published November 1st 2012 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published September 3rd 2012)
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Steve Van Slyke
This is one of those instances where I should probably qualify my remarks by mentioning that I am not a scientist and my formal education in biology and chemistry is limited to my studies in high school.

About one fourth of the way into this book I came close to abandoning it because the author seemed to be belaboring his points and I couldn't see clearly where he was headed. But I stuck with it and am glad to have done so because, even though I am not convinced he is correct, he does manage to p
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
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 th
Joy Yan
Apr 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I read this book a year ago in the summer of my high school senior year, when I still wanted to major in neuroscience. It was like an unexpected treasure I found in the library. Now everything has changed but the book stayed amazing. It's scientific, but pretty easy to understand. Most importantly, the content is about the origin of life, the mysterious, unsolved matter which always interests me so much. The book offers an amazing insight about it. For the first time I thought I got more informa ...more
Mar 18, 2017 rated it liked it
I’m rather underwhelmed by this book. Though it is praised as “uncover[ing] the chemical roots of Darwinian theory, thereby opening a novel route connecting biology to chemistry and physics” (and by a Nobel prize winner, no less!), I think this route is far from novel. It’s always been obvious to me that biology is chemistry in living cells, that all the rules of chemistry derive from properties described by physics, and indeed that physics is based on mathematics and mathematics on logic. This ...more
Abi Ghifari
Dec 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science
At least once in our lifetime, we must be wondering why we live, what is our purpose in life, and why does life even begin in the first place? While there are no definitive answers to those questions, science can at least provide a glimpse of thoughts to answer what life is and how does the life begin. Addy Pross, a professor of organic chemistry at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, explores the answers to ‘what is life?’ that science has provided so far, which also becomes the title of this book. ...more
Jerry Pogan
Jun 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I absolutely love reading stuff like this but, honestly, it completely overwhelms me. There is just an overload of information that I am unable to fully digest, but here's my take on what I think I learned. First, the title asks What is Life? but really what the book is saying is that we don't have an answer to that question yet and then explains why. So how did inanimate matter become alive? It is fairly certain that life began with self-replicating chemistry and progressed as mutations occurre ...more
Sep 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
My friend Manoj recently said, “In 5 billion years, an atom learned to talk.”

This observation begs the question: How did the atom learn to talk? How did non-life become life?

Pross sets out to answer this question and in so doing addresses many obstacles, the largest of which is Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics. If you’re unfamiliar with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it states that "In any cyclic process, the entropy will either increase or remain the same." It is often expressed simply
Feb 24, 2015 rated it liked it
If things did start as a tepid soup of various chemicals, what took place that led to non-living matter becoming alive, and ultimately to me typing ineffectual reviews on Goodreads? Pross' answer, while ultimately chemical, bridges the gap between chemistry and biology by exploring the development of chemical, replicative systems.

While it takes a while to get into its stride, by the last third of the book I was hooked. The initial slow pace is partly because Pross takes a safe route and assumes
Baraa Qudah
Jun 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
very nice book

how could life arise from the matter ? how could they drives against the laws of stability ( the thermodynamic stability )

it explains very important concepts like DKS - dynamic kinetics stability - , homochirality ,replicators & systems chemistry , historical and ahistorical clues , and alot of points .

and it illustrate that biological evolution is a continuation to the chemical evolution .

and it a draw a lines of where we are now at understanding of life , what we could know at f
Jason Downey
Aug 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audiobooks
A high school me who read this book may have gone on to become a biologist. Fascinating information, really well written, really accessible.
May 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: genesis
The Story about the cloud where from dead things living things are made! - if I'd have to put it in brief, or much better: Story about things that tamper, interfere with the II. Law!
(It's unlikely that some reader lacking basics of thermodynamics will jump on this book, but here is to test yourself: which law is going to kill us? The I or the II Law? If you have answer you may proceed, if no, I'd first take some lectures about these two laws!

Adam and Eve vs. the Serpent! Since that dramatic mome
Donna Herrick
If the theory of evolution leaves you with questions about how did we get life to begin with, then this book has an answer. Networks of self-replicating chemicals.

When I first started reading this book I was wondering if I had stumbled upon a screed about Intelligent Design. But that was merely the author spelling out the issues that we still face in understanding life, the universe and everything. In the end he posits a plausible theory of how self-replicating molecules can overcome the tendenc
B.C. Chase
Feb 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A thorough, honest, and engaging exploration of an extremely difficult question.
Aravindakshan Narasimhan
Jul 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Learned a lot. Coming from non scientific background, the book gave me introduction to many scientific phenomenon and schools.

Teleonomy, chirality, life's non equilibrium state in opposition to second law of thermodynamics, holism vs reductionism.

The author makes the book and concepts as readable and understandable as possible.

When explaining the difference between linear vs exponential he comes up with a famous legend- which I first read in a Indian context, here presented as a Chinese one (
Chris Branch
Mar 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
If I'd read this book hoping to learn the actual sequence of events that led to the origin of life on Earth, I would have been disappointed. Luckily, I realize that if that kind of discovery had been made, I would have probably read about it already on a science blog somewhere. The Wikipedia article on abiogenesis, including all the various hypotheses that have been proposed, is long enough to almost qualify as a short book itself - so it's clear that there is no standard, generally agreed upon ...more
Dec 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
I read this because it was book of the month on's Science and Inquiry group, for January 2015. I had some concerns in the prologue and first chapter, because the author was emphasizing the seemingly unnatural nature of life, going so far as to refer to "nature's design." Design suggesting to me a designer. Then discussing teleonomy, the apparent purposefulness of life. Then referring to evolution as Darwinism, citing and critiquing original words by Charles Darwin. All in all, the ...more
Jan 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2013
Wow, that was one good book!

What is life? And how did it emerge? How does inanimate matter become animate? Scientists on the whole do not dispute that it happened -- but cannot say how, or when or why.

Pross studies replicative chemistry, work that started with Saul Spiegelman's work on RNA in the 60s. Here, he explains biology in chemical terms, but at the same time, shows how this chemical explanation fulfills what Darwin predicted 150 years ago.

We normally think of abiogenesis and evolution
Jun 25, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
After spending the first few chapters outlining the major obstacles to developing a theory of abiogenesis, Pross then proceeds to lay out his proposed solution to the problem. I found his analysis of the intractable problems of abiogenesis to be insightful and spot on with what I know from my other reading in origin of life research. Then in the second half of the book he, almost too glibly, in my opinion, outlines his solution to the problem, which in a nutshell, is that life evolved from chemi ...more
Feb 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This dropped into my hands while I listened to the panspermia chatter surrounding the marvellous Rosetta/Philae mission to comet 67P last November. However, the book attempts to answer the 'how' rather than the 'whence life' question. Pross presents this in the principal of how abiogenesis occurs despite the constraints imposed on matter by the second law of thermodynamics. Pross argues simple chemical processes are the key to understanding how inert matter acquires the essential replicating and ...more
Jan 07, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Betsy by: GR Science & Inquiry Grop
This book was a bit difficult for me, since I have only high school science training. But it's an interesting topic so I stuck with it. And actually, I think the author did a pretty good job of making it intelligible for the layperson. I believe I understand his general theories. That biology is really just complex chemistry, which is just complex physics ... okay, I can buy that. That the biology of how life started can be better understood if we examine it in terms of chemical processes ... ok ...more
Jul 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A compelling and logical theory on how simple life - replicating chemical systems - could have emerged from inanimate matter, and how the same simple physical and chemical processes ultimately lead to complex life - indeed, on how the theory of evolution is just a high-level special case of these processes. Highly recommended if you're at least somewhat interested in the topic. If you have no background in natural sciences, the book might be a bit too advanced. I encourage readers to stick with ...more
Feb 05, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'd been looking forward to reading this book but then found it to be a little disappointing. Addy Pross is a chemist and his book seeks to show that biology ("life") can be explained by chemistry. I'm also a chemist and to me it is self-evident that biology should be explainable by chemistry, in the same way that chemistry should be explainable by physics. At the same time, I'm mystified how life started and evolved at the chemical level. We know a tremendous amount about the chemical reactions ...more
Aug 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
If you're not a complete layman you might want to read the first 100 pages diagonally. The reason I gave it 5 stars is because what comes next, the last 100 pages, is worth a book in and of it's own. ...more
Aug 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Powerful, scientific and a delight!
Oct 05, 2017 rated it it was ok
To me the central claim of the book just doesn't make sense - or correlate with basic facts of biological reality.

The author claims that life "began with replication", but how can that possibly be, if every life we know of is enclosed in a membrane? How does one write a whole book on life, claiming that life "is such" i.e. replication, without even mentioning another ubiquitous condition of life: the phospholipid membrane? It boggles the imagination.

What value this book can be said to have deri
James Miller
Addy Pross, "What is Life?" (a criticism)

My impression is that Pross proceeds in a reductionist way that fails to capture the dynamism of proto-life processes. His description of kinetic stability is not clearly explained. He sidesteps the question of thermodynamic stability, and for that I recommend Ilya Prigogine's book, "The End of Certainty," which places thermodynamic stability squarely in the realm of probability. This approach is definitely a necessity if you want to posit self-organizing
Mark Moon
Not a lot of technical details in this short book, but it still makes a good argument for its thesis: that biological evolution can and should be extended to the realm of chemistry via the emerging field of "systems chemistry", and that this is the best way to understand biology as a kind of chemistry - the replicative chemistry of autocatalytic reaction networks.

While ordinary chemical systems tend towards stability in the form of thermodynamic equilibrium, so that they are most stable when the
Benjamin Pierce
Mar 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Astronomer Fred Hoyle once said, in relation to the origin of life from atoms, "A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? So small as to be negligible, even if a tornado were to blow through enough junkyards to fill the whole Universe."

That pretty much sums up one of the greatest scientific myste
Hassan Ahmed  Al Lawati
This book is a brave venture to explore the ever intractable issue of what life is and how it emerged from inanimate matter. Parts of it are definitely intriguing and exciting and some other parts are a bit slow and tedious. I was a bit disappointed about not finding what I was looking for in sense of historical information about the emergence of life, but I suppose I can't blame anyone for that since no one in scientific community knows that. The book revolved around the general principles of a ...more
May 23, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
During this time, I developed a new cycle of finding interesting literature and references that I used to start from Aeon then I checked the author's book. This one is not yet somehow it feels so-aeon (idk how to describe but if you read aeonmag, you'll get what I mean)

So my friend recommended me to read. I felt a bit tricked at first, this book works the title as a clickbait and I feel that I somehow forced to follow the autho's mind map, leading me here, and there, discuss few possibilities of
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Science and Inquiry: * January 2015 - What is Life? 9 86 Jan 16, 2015 10:54AM  

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“Life is simply a particular state of organized instability.” 3 likes
“... despite the profound advances in molecular biology oer the past half-century, we still do not understand what life is, how it relates to the inanimate world, and how it emerged.” 1 likes
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