The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms, and the Order of Life

The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms, and the Order of Life

The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms, and the Order of Life

The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms, and the Order of Life

Synopsis

What is life? Fifty years after physicist Erwin Schrodinger posed this question in his celebrated and inspiring book, the answer remains elusive. In The Way of the Cell, one of the world's most respected microbiologists draws on his wide knowledge of contemporary science to provide fresh insight into this intriguing and all-important question. What is the relationship of living things to the inanimate realm of chemistry and physics? How do lifeless but special chemicals come together to form those intricate dynamic ensembles that we recognize as life? To shed light on these questions, Franklin Harold focuses here on microorganisms--in particular, the supremely well-researched bacterium E. coli--because the cell is the simplest level of organization that manifests all the features of the phenomenon of life. Harold shows that as simple as they appear when compared to ourselves, every cell displays a dynamic pattern in space and time, orders of magnitude richer than its elements. It integrates the writhings and couplings of billions of molecules into a coherent whole, draws matter and energy into itself, constructs and reproduces its own order, and persists in this manner for numberless generations while continuously adapting to a changing world. A cell constitutes a unitary whole, a unit of life, and in this volume one of the leading authorities on the cell gives us a vivid picture of what goes on within this minute precinct. The result is a richly detailed, meticulously crafted account of what modern science can tell us about life as well as one scientist's personal attempt to wring understanding from the tide of knowledge.

Excerpt

This book is not about biology, biochemistry or any other finished and finite discipline, but about life. Life seems to me the supreme marvel of the universe—familiar, thoroughly material, probably ubiquitous yet elusive and ultimately mysterious. My purpose is to assess how far we have come toward a scientific understanding of the phenomenon of life.

With so broad, not to say nebulous a subject, it seems best to spell out the premises on which this inquiry rests. First, I am a scientist by profession, not a philosopher; we shall be concerned here with what natural science has to say about the nature of life, not how it appears to a psychologist, theologian, poet or epistemologist. Second, I take it that the term “life” designates a real phenomenon, recognizable by a set of properties characteristic of some natural objects and lacking in others; one of our goals must be to identify the essential features that distinguish living organisms from other things. Although we have been able to study but one kind of life, the terrestrial variety, it is likely that life exists elsewhere in the universe, and it is arguable that life everywhere will be based on this common set of general principles. Third, during the past century we have come a very long way by scrutinizing the workings, architecture and chemistry of cells and organisms; what we have learned makes a solid foundation for reflection on the nature of life in general. Finally, I hold that the quest for an answer to the riddle, “What is Life?” is one of the grand themes that resonate through the scientific conversation of this century—a period whose science is also its singular glory. That riddle embraces and transcends the subject matter of all the biological sciences, and much of physical science as well. a physics that has no place for life is as impoverished as would be a biology not informed by chemistry. the study of life as a natural phenomenon, a fundamental feature of the universe, must not be allowed to slip into the black hole of departmental tribalism.

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