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The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Solving the Mystery of Life

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  393 ratings  ·  59 reviews
'A gripping new drama in science ... if you want to understand how the concept of life is changing, read this' Professor Andrew Briggs, University of Oxford

When Darwin set out to explain the origin of species, he made no attempt to answer the deeper question: what is life?

For generations, scientists have struggled to make sense of this fundamental question. Life really do
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published January 31st 2019 by Allen Lane
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Average rating 4.05  · 
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Start your review of The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Solving the Mystery of Life
☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣
I’m fascinated by what makes organisms tick, what enables living matter to do such astounding things – things beyond the reach of non-living matter. Where does the difference come from? Even a humble bacterium accomplishes things so amazing, so dazzling, that no human engineer can match it. Life looks like magic, its secrets cloaked by a shroud of impenetrable complexity. Huge advances in biology over the past decades have served only to deepen the mystery. What gives living things that enigma
Brian Clegg
Feb 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book.

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to
Muhammad Abdullah
Paul Davis made an amazing combination of physics, chemistry, biology and information theory in this book which gave readers a lot of information. This book explains the mesmerizing effects of quantum mechanics in a wonderful way at the atomic levels and the birds navigation which sounds like really interesting . The most part of the book tells us about biology and life.
Peter Tillman
Jan 25, 2019 marked it as to-read
I'll at least take a look at this one when the library gets a copy. The author is a cosmologist, and Nature's reviewer compares Davies' effort to Erwin Schrodinger's classic "What is Life?" (1943):
"Davies claims that life’s defining characteristics are better understood in terms of information. This is not as absurd as it may seem [reviewer is a biologist. This strikes me as a reasonable argument by Davies]. Energy is abstract, yet we have little
Dan Sumption
Dec 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book brings together the latest findings in physics and biology in an attempt to answer the question "what is life?" (with a small side-order of "what is consciousness?") Information Theory and Computational Theory offer a tantalising insight into what separates the living from the non-living and, through the use of "Maxwell Demons", allows living organisms to defy the second law of thermodynamics, maintaing their complex state despite the tendency of all matter to devolve into entropy.

Shuaib  Choudhry
Jun 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A book which look at life through the lens of a physicist. The central equation is matter + information = life. He essentially treats the genome networks as computational units of an information/communications network and this is the basis of all life and it's not necessarily a reductionist paradigm, there could be top-down causation possible through some organizational informational rules that underly life.

Information processing and computation is how life regulates itself and this underlies s
Nick Traynor
Oct 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was heartening to learn that there are new approaches to understanding the processes of life in general, and consciousness in particular, and Paul Davies has a particular gift of insight and understanding into how the universe is put together. I was most interested in his ideas of fertile areas for research that can elucidate the mechanisms by which consciousness is generated, and Davies's thesis is that informational systems are both fundamental to the universe and explainable by as yet unde ...more
Aug 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Read this book for a really entertaining account of the way life operates at the level of a cell to process information from a bestiary of truly fascinating creatures that make life what it is. If there is a more comprehensive account of the cell in equally accessible language then I want that on my reading list. I also learned a number of unexpected new things about the evolutionary process which I found helpful and will use in future discussions. For the question “what is life?” however, never ...more
Dan Graser
Apr 08, 2019 rated it liked it
This is a difficult book to rate as at times I felt like I was experiencing an interesting incipit to a completely new way of thinking about life, other times, I felt bombarded with unnecessary detail and a hopeless abandonment of the great promise of the book's subtitle.

First of all, I greatly enjoyed the extended description of Maxwell's demon as this is a concept I have been very vague on for a while, this book really does nail down the concept quite clearly. Also, this will likely be the bes
Aug 04, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting book with a lot of cool information about information. It really conveyed the point that it is not enough to think about biological life in purely chemical or physical terms, but informational terms as well (the analogy being that the chemical components are life’s hardware while the information processing components are life’s software). It also did a good job of going beyond the standard account of genetics as an information science and talked about the role that epigenetics p ...more
Kee Onn
Feb 19, 2020 rated it liked it
This is an update long overdue to the age-old question - "What is life?" In this book, Paul Davies delivers to the reader the latest research and insights. There are two parts to this book - the first being the development of information theory, of nanoscale Maxwell demons and engines seemingly going against the second law of thermodynamics, and how all of these relates to the improbable, entropy-reversing existence of life. The second part considers development on the biology front, including t ...more
Apr 18, 2019 rated it it was ok
Demonic mind games is what you'll get from the chapter "enter the demon". I literally could not tell the difference between his incoherent rambling where words/concepts are artfully replaced (such as entropy becoming information in turn becoming 'work', with the intent being that information is something other than the physical/material systems they're associated with; I guess the hope was that most people just go along with the narrative because the ever-so-smart physicist is treating it likes ...more
Brad Dunn
May 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I didn't know what this book was about when I bought it - an algorithm recommended it and I like both Demons and Machines - so why not, am I right?

The book is wonderful and I learned so much from it about the overlap between biology, quantum mechanics and information theory. Before you tune out, let this sink in for a bit, because this is what the book is about....

The building blocks of life aren't chemicals, its information. He essentially thinks information (data) might be a whole other thing,
Dec 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A readable treatise on how life may have arisen from inanimate matter. Complex information is interwoven in living systems helped along by Maxwell's demons. New laws of physics may one day be discovered that help us understand the enormous chasm between chemistry and living systems. Perhaps the universe we exist in favoured the emergence of life and mind, giving humans a "cosmic" meaning without needing to invoke a magician who plays with matter from time to time. Davies' ideas are compelling ye ...more
Dec 04, 2020 rated it did not like it
At best, there is nothing new in this catalogue of pop science talking points. Nothing you read here hasn't already been explored in greater depth somewhere else in the past 50 years, and by someone with a better grasp of the relevant topic.
At worst, it wastes the reader's time by leading him through a series of naïve misinterpretations and superficial cogitations on pop science subjects, with no point to make or conclusions to derive.
Couldn't Davies get one single biologist to check his substan
Mats Winther
A book for hyper-intellectuals

Davies used to write books for laymen, but this time he gets very technical. It is an advanced and well-written book on state-of-the-art science. But to me, it was a disappointment, because I'm moderately interested in technicalities. Most of the book is like this:
In response to the arrival of a signal from the body of the neuron, the gates open and allow sodium ions to flow from the outside to the inside, thereby reversing the voltage. Next, a different set of ion
Deane Barker
Dec 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is not a book for the casual reader. A lot of this went over my head, but I managed to maintain a loose grip on it until the end.

Essentially, the author is arguing for the inclusion of information science along with physics, chemistry, and biology as the disciplines that deal with the origins of the universes. The author says that the universe is, at some level, based on information. DNA is information, for example, and that drives biology. And what do we make of consciousness? Is that some
Richard Hakes
I don't know if I was expecting too much but in essence the book says nothing. For the last 70/80 years or so thoughts of where we have come from have been trying to find a hard scientific truth. We have anticipated artificial intelligence and we have looked for alien life. My firm belief remains intact we have not progressed an iota forward. Until the day some alien taps us on the shoulder maybe things will not change.. ...more
Dec 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Although published in October of 2019, this book is my favorite book of 2020. I have read 149 books to date this year, and my criteria for favorite book is simple: the marginalia I write after reading something memorable.
This book has the graffiti of my amazement throughout such that it would not be accepted by any second-hand book buyers.

This book is a thrilling, mind-enhancing tour of the majesty of biology, physics and information science that suggests there is still so much we don’t know ab
Peter Ellwood
Feb 20, 2021 rated it really liked it
Interesting insights into the intersection where biology, physics and information combine to create life.

For anyone who has read Richard Dawkins, I found this a kind of cross between The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype. By which I mean, I marvelled at Dawkins’ ability to express the complexity of genetics in ths first of those books: so much so that I moved triumphantly on to The Extended Phenotype - where I understood pretty much zip. Dawkins had written the first book for idiots, and
Tarun Mascarenhas
Sep 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
An interesting read about how the deepest questions in biology have answers that lean towards concepts from physics, computation and mathematics. The author specifically makes the case for the role of information theory in leading the way towards the development of the 'Theory of Life'. He however warns against a purely reductionist approach, as is most popular in quantitative biology. He makes the case that if current physics cannot do so, we might need to discover a new physics, so as to expla ...more
Sergij Grebenjuk
Jan 21, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Heard of this book in one of science podcasts, and it hooked me straight away. Quite a different angle to look at the origins and evolution of life, I thought, especially after completing several books by Dawkins and smaller volumes by other authors (including Schrödinger) on related topics. So after keeping it in a bucket list for a couple of years, I eventually ordered a printed copy.
Surely, I expected too see a larger book, than 200+ pages of a small format. I browsed slowly through the pages
Mar 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
One of the best scientific books I've read so far. The motif of the book is as follows:

"While it is the case that biological information is instantiated in matter, it is not inherent in matter. Bits of information chart their own course inside living things. In so doing, they don't violate the laws of physics, but nor are they encapsulated by those laws [...]"

Paul Davies masterfully shows how are the theory of information, thermodynamics, biology and quantum mechanics intertwined. Most important
Artur Klauser
Nov 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biotech
This book takes a rather different point of view on the processes of life. While virtually all other work is mainly concerned with the physical aspects of life, how is living matter different from inanimate matter, how did it come about etc., the author here highlights the aspects of life that revolve around information storage and processing. The author convincingly argues that information has to be viewed as an integral, maybe the essential, aspect of what defines life, entirely devoid of what ...more
Harrison Saich
Mar 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
I appreciate the playful writing style and the way in which Davies’ arguments have been constructed. That, and the actual content is jaw-dropping/ dripping with intrigue.

The first half of the book unfolds in a cohesive and linear fashion, though the second half wants to cover so much ground that the overarching position gets diluted. The final chapter seemed convoluted and jargonistic, but that could have been my flaw rather than an error of the author. Davies also resorts to the rookie error o
Jul 06, 2020 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
The book is inspired from "What is Life?" a lecture-series turned popular science book penned by the legendary Erwin Schrodinger. However, the author feels that "What is life?" is incomplete and that we are at the threshold of answering much of what Schrodinger had left to explain in 1943, and which Darwin had dodged. This, he feels, is due to the advancements in information theory.

This book by Schrodinger was a giant leap in terms of insight, which spawned revolutionary developments in the fiel
Owen Veit
Mar 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The Demon in the Machine felt like a series of mind-blowing revelations on the connection between information and life. It took me a while to read because I frequently had to stop and think about what was on the page in front of me. At its heart, Paul Davies is trying to address the question “What is life?” To do so, he weaves together Maxwell’s demon, information theory, cellular automatons and meta-rules, epigenetic inheritance and selective mutations, emergent consciousness and spooky quantum ...more
Sep 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Yates Buckley
Dec 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Paul Davies is a an excellent science writer, bringing fresh perspective to historical and new science but what makes this book particularly interesting is the insight we get from firsthand access to the research on the subject.

Biology is still a strange science, exceptions outweigh the rule when you try to make any statement, there is a lack of fundamental principles to follow and even being able to effect a measurement reliably is completely non trivial.

However this state is unlikely to remain
Thor Grant
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
As someone who was a whole hearted believer in reductionism, especially in relation to complex problems like consciousness and the formation of life, I was glad to be almost completely converted by this book. Applying information theory as a kind of philosophical troubleshooting mechanism as Davies portrays is both eye opening and phenomenal at making complex biological processes and quantum mechanics click for the reader. The section on the application of this theory towards understanding cance ...more
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Paul Charles William Davies AM is a British-born physicist, writer and broadcaster, currently a professor at Arizona State University as well as the Director of BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. He has held previous academic appointments at the University of Cambridge, University of London, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, University of Adelaide and Macquarie University. His re ...more

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Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and co-founder of NPR’s 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog and an on-air...
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“Network theory confirms the view that information can take on 'a life of its own'. In the yeast network my colleagues found that 40 per cent of node pairs that are correlated via information transfer are not in fact physically connected; there is no direct chemical interaction. Conversely, about 35 per cent of node pairs transfer no information between them even though they are causally connected via a 'chemical wire' (edge). Patterns of information traversing the system may appear to be flowing down the 'wires' (along the edges of the graph) even when they are not. For some reason, 'correlation without causation' seems to be amplified in the biological case relative to random networks.” 0 likes
“What is the minimum level of complexity needed to attain the twin features of non-trivial replication and open-ended evolvability? If the complexity threshold is quite low, we might expect life to arise easily and be widespread in the cosmos. If it is very high, then life on Earth may be an exception, a freak product of a series of highly improbable events.” 0 likes
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