The Rainbow and the Worm
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The Rainbow and the Worm

The Physics of Organisms

Mae-Wan Ho

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The Rainbow and the Worm

The Physics of Organisms

Mae-Wan Ho

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About This Book

This highly unusual book began as a serious inquiry into Schrödinger's question, “What is life?”, and as a celebration of life itself. It takes the reader on a voyage of discovery through many areas of contemporary physics, from non-equilibrium thermodynamics and quantum optics to liquid crystals and fractals, all necessary for illuminating the problem of life. In the process, the reader is treated to a rare and exquisite view of the organism, gaining novel insights not only into the physics, but also into “the poetry and meaning of being alive.”

This much-enlarged third edition includes new findings on the central role of biological water in organizing living processes; it also completes the author's novel theory of the organism and its applications in ecology, physiology and brain science.


  • What Is It to Be Alive?
  • Do Organisms Contravene the Second Law?
  • Can the Second Law Cope with Organized Complexity?
  • Energy Flow and Living Cycles
  • How to Catch a Falling Electron
  • Towards a Thermodynamics of Organised Complexity
  • Sustainable Systems as Organisms
  • The Seventy-Three Octaves of Nature's Music
  • Coherent Excitations of the Body Electric
  • The Solid-State Cell
  • 'Life is a Little Electric Current'
  • How Coherent Is the Organism? The Heartbeat of Health
  • How Coherent Is the Organism? Sensitivity to Weak Electromagnetic Fields
  • Life is All the Colors of the Rainbow in a Worm
  • The Liquid Crystalline Organism
  • Crystal Consciousness
  • Liquid Crystalline Water
  • Quantum Entanglement and Coherence
  • Ignorance of the External Observer
  • Time and Freewill

Readership: Sixth-form and undergraduate students in physics and biology; biophysics, biochemistry and quantum mechanics undergraduates.

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What is It to Be Alive?

The ‘Big’ Questions in Science

There are ‘big’ questions and ‘small’ questions in science. Most scientists in their work-a-day life confine themselves to asking small questions such as: Which gene is involved in a given hereditary defect? How will a certain organism react to such and such a stimulus? What are the characteristics of this or that compound? What is the effect of A on B? How will a given system behave under different perturbations? Yet, it is not a desire to solve particular puzzles that motivates the scientist, but rather the belief that in solving those little puzzles, a contribution will be made to larger questions on the nature of metabolic or physiological regulation, the generic properties of nonlinear dynamical systems, and so on. It is ultimately the big questions that arouse our passion, both as scientists and as ordinary human beings. They can inspire some of us as the most beautiful works of art that nature has created, whose meaning is to be sought as assiduously as one might the meaning of life itself.
For me, the big motivating question is Austrian quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s What is life?1 That it is also a question on the meaning of life is evident to Schrödinger, who closes his book with a chapter on philosophical implications for determinism and freewill. This is as it should be. I do not agree with those scientists for whom scientific knowledge has no meaning for life, and must be kept separate from real life in any event; perhaps an attitude symptomatic of the alienation that pervades our fragmented, industrial society. I will not dwell on that here, as it is not the main thesis of my book. Instead, I want to concentrate, for now, on Schrödinger’s original question:
‘How can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry’?2
The same question has been posed in one form or another since the beginning of modern science. Is living matter basically the same as non-living only more complicated, or is it something different altogether. In other words, are the laws of physics and chemistry necessary and sufficient to account for life, or are additional laws outside physics and chemistry required. Descartes is famous not only for separating mind from matter; he also placed living matter, alongside with non-living matter, firmly within the ken of the laws of physics; more specifically, of mechanical physics. Since then, generations of vitalists, including German embryologist Hans Driesch and French philosopher Henri Bergson, have found it necessary to react against the mechanical conception of life by positing with living organisms an additional entelechy, or elan vital, which is not within the laws of physics and chemistry.3
The vitalists were right not to lose sight of the fundamental phenomenon of life that the mechanists were unable to acknowledge or to explain. But we no longer live in the age of mechanical determinism. Contemporary physics grew out of the breakdown of Newtonian mechanics at the beginning of the present century, both at the submolecular quantum domain and in the universe at large. We have as yet to work out the full implications of all this for biology. Some major thinkers early in the last century, such as British philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, already saw the need to explain physics in terms of a general theory of the organism,4 thus turning the usually accepted hierarchy of reductionist explanation in science on its head. Not everyone has accepted Whitehead’s thesis, but at least, it indicates that the traditional boundaries between the scientific disciplines can no longer be upheld, if one is to really understand nature. Today, physics has made further in-roads into the ‘organic’ domain, in its emphasis on nonlinear phenomena far from equilibrium, on coherence and cooperativity, which are some of the hallmarks of living systems. The vitalist/mechanist opposition is of mere historical interest, for it is the very boundary between living and non-living that is the object of our enquiry, and so we can have no preconceived notion as to where it ought to be placed.
Similarly, to those of us who do not see our quest for knowledge as distinct from the rest of our life, there can be no permanent boundary between science and other ways of knowing. Knowledge is all of a piece. In particular, it is all of a piece with the knowing consciousness, so there can be no a priori dualism between consciousness and science. Far from implying that consciousness must be ‘reduced’ to physics and chemistry, I see physics and chemistry evolving more and more under the guidance of an active consciousness that participates in knowing.5 Some of these issues will be dealt with in the final chapters.

The Physicochemical Underpinnings of Life

Schrödinger’s preliminary answer to the question of what is life is as follows:
‘The obvious inability of present-day [1940s] physics and chemistry to account for such events [as take place within living organisms] is no reason at all for doubting that they can be accounted for by those sciences’.6
He is saying that we simply do not know if events within living organisms could be accounted for by physics and chemistry because we have nothing like living systems that we could set up or test in the laboratory. There is a serious point here that impinges on the methods and technologies we use in science. Until quite recently, the typical way to study living organisms is to kill and fix them, or smash them up into pieces until nothing is left of the organization that we are supposed to be studying. That has merely reinforced the Newtonian mechanical view of organisms that has proven thoroughly inadequate to account for life. The situation should change with great advances in the development of non-invasive technologies within the past thirty years. We can ‘listen in’ to nature without violating her. I shall have more to say on that in later chapters.
Another reason for not doubting that physics and chemistry can account for living systems is surely that they are both evolving disciplines. Who knows what the subjects will look like in twenty years time? Already, physics and chemistry now look quite different from the subjects in the 1940s. The transistor radio, the computer and lasers have been invented since Schrödinger wrote his book. Whole new disciplines have been created: synergetics, the study of cooperative phenomena, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, quantum electrodynamics and quantum optics, to name but a few. In mathematics, nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory took off in a big way during the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps partly on account of that, many nonlinear optical phenomena associated with quantum cavity electrodynamics and coherent light scattering in solid-state systems have been actively investigated only within the past 25 years. Hopes for high temperature superconductivity, which flared brightly in the 1990s, have dimmed considerably since. A major current obsession is nanotechnology, or technology precise to the molecular level, which is finding many applications in photonics and electronics.7 The quantum information revolution is also with us, holding out promise of quantum cryptography and computers that rely on quantum entanglement to solve problems much faster than conventional computers.8
There have been suggestions since the early 1990s that the recent developments in physics and chemistry are particularly relevant for our understanding of biological phenomena. But a serious attempt to re-examine Schrödinger’s question was not made until the first edition of this book, published in 1993, and especially the second edition published in 1998. Since then, there has been further stunning progress in physics and chemistry, which has made the physics of organisms all the more relevant for our understanding of the big question.
Be prepared for an intellectual odyssey that takes off from equilibrium to nonequilibrium thermodynamics and extensions of quantum theory, with incursions into solid state physics, the physics of liquid crystals, as well as the relevant physiology, developmental biology, biochemistry and molecular biology of cells and organisms. I shall not be referring much to the details of molecular genetics and gene control mechanisms, which already fill volumes, including one that I have written in 2003 on how genetic engineering and much of molecular biology is still stuck in the mechanistic paradigm, and failing to catch up with the new, organic genetics of the fluid genome.9 Genes and molecules are all part of the rich tapestry of life that will find their rightful place when our life-picture has been sufficiently roughed out. I am more concerned here with the fundamental physical and chemical principles that make life possible, rather than the molecular nuts and bolts.10
I promise neither easy nor definitive answers. Our education already suffers from a surfeit of facile, simplistic answers which serve to explain away the phenomena, and hence to deaden the imagination and dull the intellect. An example is the claim that the natural selection of random mutations is necessary and sufficient to account for the evolution of life. As a result, whole generations of evolutionary biologists are lulled into thinking that any and every characteristic of organisms is to be ‘explained’ solely in terms of the ‘selective advantage’ it confers on the organism. There is no need to consider physiology or development, nor indeed the organism itself; much less the physical and chemical basis of living organisation.11
To me, science is a quest for the most intimate understanding of nature. It is not an industry set up for the purpose of validating existing theories and indoctrinating students in the correct ideologies. It is an adventure of the free enquiring spirit that thrives not so much on answers as unanswered questions. It is the enigmas, the mysteries and paradoxes that take hold of the imagination, leading it on the most exquisite dance. I should be more than satisfied, if, at the end of this book, I have done no more than keep the big question alive.
What is life? Can life be defined? Each attempt at definition is bound to melt away, like the beautiful snowflake one tries to look at close-up. Indeed, there have been many attempts to define life, in order that the living may be neatly separated from the nonliving. But none has succeeded in capturing its essential nature. Out of the sheer necessity to communicate with my readers, I shall offer my own tentative definition for now, which to me, at least, seems closer to the mark: life is a process of being an organising whole. In the course of this book, you will come across other more precise or more encompassing definitions.
It is important to recognize that life is a process and not a thing, nor a property of a material thing or structure. As is well known, the material constituents of our body are continually broken down and synthesized again at different rates, and yet the whole remains recognizably the same being throughout life. So much so that a profound sense of grief will overtake loved ones whenever that unique life history comes to an end. Life resides in the pattern of dynamic flows of matter and energy that somehow makes the organism alive, enabling it to grow, develop and evolve. The ‘whole’ does not refer to an isolated, monadic e...

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