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The difference between chemical reactions and living systems

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Manfred Eigen and Ruthild Winkler's book The Laws of the Game
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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The book was written in '75 already, it had over one hundred thousand copies in several editions, it has been translated in many languages, and so I think we brought over some of our general ideas. I remember very well that time when we said, 'Yes we have to say something, now we have to write a book'. And we didn't do any travelling that year, we really worked hard, and it was written in a time less than a year.

[Q] And the final title in the translation was Laws of the Game.

Yes, the English translation is The Laws of the Game. The German book was Das Spiel - The Game. Before we had written a smaller one which was called Ludus Vitalis and it has a subtitle How the Principles of Nature Govern Chance. One might perhaps say the principles don't govern chance but they govern the outcome of chance and control the outcome of chance. Well, the book starts with real games – you developed many of them – games played on a board, on a game board, and showing, so to speak, experimentally, the results of certain statistics.

[Q] It were not just games for fun, there was a deep background to show...

Right. Some games were made more for fun and others were made more for getting insight. There is this famous game from the turn of century, which was called the Ehrenfest model, which describes equilibrium systems. And this shows very nicely the fluctuations going with the square root of the number of chequers we use or, we used glass spheres so we had some relation to Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game, or what is Das Glasperlenspiel in German. And we played games of chance, true random board games but also games of evolution, selection, and showing not only the average result but also showing the fluctuations, the deviations, from the average. And all the games were played on a computer for many times so that we could make sure to have typical results.

[Q] For the typical results that the statistics was given.

Yes, but we did not stop with it. Here's the latest translation in English which came out last year again in Princeton University Press, and we applied the game. First we introduced a statistical game, we say 'the taming of chance' – then we brought games in time and space, structure formation, by dissipative forces, by Prigogine's theory. And then we talk about the limits of the games... the limits of humanity, we really come to the ethical problems of these applications which is games of growth. I mean that many of these games show that if you don't control the growth it might go beyond any limit, and our space and our resources are limited, and we talk about ecosystem and industrial society. And finally we get even to the realm of ideas, which means we discussed Popper, we discussed language, we discussed memory and, finally, art and music.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysicist Manfred Eigen is 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 has 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: The Laws of the Game, Das Spiel, Ludus Vitalis, How the Principles of Nature Govern Chance, Ehrenfest model, The Glass Bead Game, Das Glasperlenspiel, Princeton University Press, Dissipative structure theory, Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch, Tatiana Ehrenfest, Paul Ehrenfest, Hermann Karl Hesse, Ilya Romanovich Prigogine, Karl Raimund Popper

Duration: 4 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010