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Duties to society


Eigen's book: Treatise on Matter, Information, Life and Thought
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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The title of the book will be something like Treatise on Matter, Information, Life and Thought. Some friends say, 'Why don't you tell us what you will not cover in your book? It seems to be everything!' Indeed I'll start with physics, and the first chapter is Energy and matter, and we will show... we'll get into physics, into relativity, quantum mechanics, elementary particle. But I do it in order to show what are the laws of physics, what kind of problems are we dealing with. And if I would express it in one word, we try to generalise our theories, to become universal more and more, so that it is a trend towards simplicity... but it's a strange simplicity, it's a simplicity we have no imagination for any more. We don't understand. Look at Einstein's field equation.  It's very simple, beautifully symmetrical equation there, but these are [unclear]... and they have properties we don't meet in our daily lives. So the theories, by getting more universal, more symmetrical, more simple, get stranger and stranger and stranger. Now I introduce another complexity with entropy.  The next chapter is Matter and entropy and then Entropy and information, and Information and complexity. And there we need self-organisation and so Complexity and self-organisation, that's before I can get to Life and thought. But if I again express life and thought, then it gets utterly complicate, complex, but it's a familiar complexity. We don't think that if a couple has children that... we think this is a natural phenomenon and everyone accepts it as a given fact. But if you try scientifically to understand what has to happen in order to copy your genes with three billion letters and do it to make sure that you get the right mixture of genes from your mother and your father and that everything like that comes about, that the cells differentiate and so on. This is utterly complex, and biology in contrast to physics, is this science of this complexity, but with outcomes which we meet in our daily life, for which we have the experience.

So, I want to contrast these two problems which then continues in culture, and the last chapter is Culture and the future. So, I say this because there were several attempts of the physicists to understand life. The first famous book was Schrödinger's What is Life?, and there was always the physical thinking that, as if life would be a special state of matter, and as if you could understand it by understanding the structure of life. No, no, life is a dynamical system, life is something which happens, life cannot be understood by the structures alone. Of course, life is built on physical substrates, and physical substrates have structures and so they are involved and their particular properties come in. But the whole is a dynamical system far from equilibrium as we have seen already, and I try to get this ideas into the book.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: entropy, What is Life?, From Strange Simplicity to Complex Familiarity: A Treatise on Matter, Information, Life and Thought, Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger

Duration: 4 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010