Books: 'What is life?'
Even today, when scientists can create life in their labs, the question remains.
"Why is there life?" may be a query best left to the cogitation of philosophers and theologians. But when asking "what is life?," it would seem fair to turn to scientists, some of whom feel they are coming closer and closer to creating life in their laboratories.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1817, young Mary Shelley wrote a novel imagining a scientist named Dr. Frankenstein who assembled a monster by combining human body parts and reanimating them. It suggested that human efforts to create life were hubristic and would only end in tragedy.
But that hasn't stopped scientists from trying. In 1771, Luigi Galvani discovered that he could make a dead frog's leg twitch by employing an electrical current. In the 19th century, Charles Darwin speculated that the ingredients for creating life might be present in a warm pond.
In 1952 two scientists tried to create life by putting swampy stuff present on Earth before life evolved (ammonia, hydrogen, and methane) inside a closed flask and adding steam and an electrical charge (artificial lightning). They produced amino acids, a building block of biological life, but no living cells.
Today, scientists simulate life on computers. They alter existing life through genetic manipulation. But so far they haven't created life. To get there, they'll have to agree on another question first: What is life?
The answer to that question has proved surprisingly elusive, says veteran science writer Ed Regis in his slender, intriguing book What Is Life?
In 1944, Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger published his own tiny book called "What Is Life?" that really didn't answer the question. But Schrödinger did propose that life wasn't mysterious and unknowable. Ordinary science could be applied to understanding it through chemistry and physics, he asserted. Life's puzzles would yield to scientific thought and experimentation. No longer should asking fundamental questions about life be seen as "playing God."
The essentials of life
Today some scientists talk about three necessary qualities of life. One is that such an entity must have an embodied metabolism, the ability to bring in raw materials from outside itself to create energy and nourish itself, in essence transforming nonliving matter into living matter. Another is reproduction, the ability to make more of its kind. The third is the ability over generations to evolve and change through natural selection.