Chris Aldrich's Reviews > The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life

The Touchstone of Life by Werner R. Loewenstein
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Dec 18, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: microbiology, itbio, information-theory, popular-science

Though there is a paucity of equations, particularly on the information theoretic side, Loewenstein does a fantastic job of discussing the theory and philosophy of what is going on in the overlapping fields of information theory and microbiology. (I will note that it is commonly held wisdom within publishing, particularly for books for the broader public, that the number of equations in a text is inversely proportional to the number of sales and I'm sure this is the reason for the lack of mathematical substantiation which he could easily have supplied.)

This is a much more specific and therefore much better - in my mind - book than John Avery's "Information Theory and Evolution" which covers some similar ground. Loewenstein has a much better and more specific grasp of the material in my opinion. Those who feel overwhelmed by Loewenstein may prefer to take a step back to Avery's more facile presentation.

Loewenstein has a deft ability to describe what is going on and give both an up-close view with many examples as well as a spectacular view of the broader picture - something which is often missing in general science books of this sort. Readers with no mathematical or microbiology background can benefit from it as much as those with more experience.

One thing which sets it apart from much of its competition, even in the broader general science area of non-fiction, is that the author has a quirky - but adept - ability to add some flowery language and analogy to clarify his points. Though many will find this off-putting, it really does add some additional flavor to what might be dry and dull explication to many. His range of background knowledge, philosophy and vocabulary are second only (and possibly even on par or exceeding in some cases) that of Simon Winchester.

I'd highly recommend this book to people prior to their academic studies of biochemistry or molecular cell biology or to budding biomedical engineers prior to their junior year of study. I truly wish I had read this in 1994 myself, but alas it didn't exist until a few years after. I lament that I hadn't picked it up and been able to read it thoroughly until now.

For my part, his drastically differing viewpoint of the way in which biology should be viewed moving forward, is spot on. I am firmly a member of this new "school". His final chapter on this concept is truly illuminating from a philosophical and theoretical view and I encourage people to read it first instead of last.

I'll also note briefly that I've seen some reviews of this book which make mention of creationism or intelligent design and whether or not proponents of those philosophies feel that Loewenstein's work here supports them or not, particularly since Loewenstein appeared on a panel with Dembski once. I will state for those who take a purely scientific viewpoint of things, that this book is written in full support of evolution and microbiology and doesn't use the concept of "information" to muddy the waters the way many ID arguments are typically made.
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Reading Progress

December 18, 2010 – Started Reading
December 18, 2010 – Shelved
December 21, 2010 –
page 36
9.28% "The opening is generally a bit slow and not as mathematically sophisticated as I might have hoped. Most of the book to this point has been a quick rehash of Steven Weinberg's book The First Three Minutes. I like where his thesis seems to be taking us though."
February 5, 2011 –
page 92
23.71%
October 31, 2011 –
page 103
26.55%
March 6, 2012 –
page 127
32.73%
March 13, 2012 –
page 165
42.53%
March 15, 2012 –
page 186
47.94%
March 18, 2012 –
page 194
50.0%
March 19, 2012 –
page 215
55.41%
March 20, 2012 –
page 231
59.54%
March 22, 2012 –
page 244
62.89%
April 18, 2012 – Shelved as: itbio
April 18, 2012 – Shelved as: microbiology
June 29, 2012 –
page 264
68.04%
August 28, 2012 –
page 282
72.68%
August 29, 2012 –
page 290
74.74%
September 2, 2012 –
page 310
79.9%
September 2, 2012 –
page 344
88.66% "This last section on the overlap of quantum computation and consciousness is quite flimsy. Interestingly he mentions he's working on a forthcoming book (in 1999) covering the topic in great detail, and I've noticed that it's scheduled to be released in January 2013 - what a wait!"
September 4, 2012 –
page 384
98.97% "An excellent closing chapter which I would encourage others to read first and then reread in its logical order. He does a wonderful job of analogizing biology to physics in its development and suggests that future unification of biological principles will provide some significant gains."
September 4, 2012 – Finished Reading
September 7, 2012 – Shelved as: information-theory
November 14, 2013 – Shelved as: popular-science

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