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The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life Hardcover – 31 Jan 2019
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Brilliantly vivid ... The big idea is that understanding the information flow in organisms might be the missing part of our scientific jigsaw puzzle. The informational approach [to life], in David's elegant and lucid exposition, is highly promising (Steven Poole Guardian)
Important and imaginative (Clive Cookson Financial Times)
Boundary-transcending ... Davies claims that life's defining characteristics are better understood in terms of information ... there is grandeur in this view of life (Nature)
Paul Davies is a courageous explorer of the boundaries of what we can know about our world. This book makes his explorations available to all who enjoy pushing those boundaries. Written with a light entertaining touch, even the most abstruse science acquires the clarity of exposition for which the author is justly renowned (Denis Noble, University of Oxford, author of Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity)
This is one of the most exciting books I have read in years. Paul Davies celebrates a significant anniversary with a demonically brilliant investigation of a fundamental question that only the very latest science and philosophy can deal with. Now we have a view from the master that's as thrilling as it is satisfying. Superb. (Robyn Williams)
The molecular biology revolution has led to extraordinary understandings of how life emerges from physical processes. But comprehension of the nuts and bolts of these processes omits a key feature of what is going on: what separates life from non-life is information. In this characteristically clearly written and engaging book, ranging from physics to biology and evolutionary theory to neuroscience, Paul Davies strongly makes the case that at its core, life is about information flows. There is much food for thought here. Highly recommended. (George F.R. Ellis, University of Cape Town, co-author of The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time)
Paul Davies always probes the deepest questions in science. Here, addressing the deepest of all -- Schrödinger's What is Life? -- he tells us what life is: matter plus information - beyond the laws of physics, but compatible with them. To elaborate this thesis, he deploys his trademark talent: getting to the heart of the most abstruse and technical aspects of science (biology as well as physics), without jargon and with down-to-earth analogies (Michael Berry, HH Wills Physics Laboratory)
This creative demon shadows DNA and the promise of quantum computing, answering some basic questions. What is consciousness, why is life so good at predicting where it might go next? The bridge connecting fundamental physics, biology and the most advanced labs of computation is what Davies calls information patterns. He shows how it organizes for top-down creativity, and thereby holds off the grim reaper of entropy. With striking insight, and metaphors that illuminate the landscape of science today, Davies once again becomes a guide to the near future. (Charles Jencks, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation)
The Demon in the Machine encompasses some of the most intriguing and unsolved mysteries of the universe: the existence of an arrow of time imprinted on the cosmos, and the emergence of life itself. Davies' crisp but rich narrative succeeds in untangling various highly complex ideas and processes, while fluently and intelligently setting out its own arrow of argument. (Mikhail Prokopenko, The University of Sydney)
Paul Davies narrates a gripping new drama in science, in which the plot is the story of life and the leading actor is information. With his characteristic blend of erudition and clarity, he brings together some of the most rapidly advancing knowledge in physics and technology to show how information controls biology. If you want to understand how the concept of life is changing, read this. (Professor Andrew Briggs, University of Oxford, author of The Penultimate Curiosity and It Keeps Me Seeking.)
About the Author
Paul Davies is a Regents' Professor of Physics and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. The author of some 30 books, his many awards include the Templeton Prize and the Faraday Prize of The Royal Society. He is a Member of the Order of Australia and has an asteroid named after him.
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Then I wasted a whole morning because fig 11 is seriously wrong: Eventually I found the original academic publication: several arrows are mis-drawn reversing DE and CE and GF and missing a reverse link on FG . Of course we are just general readers and don't deserve accuracy.
Davies is not beyond schoolboy errors - stating that the first satellites were launched in 1958 and that carbon-12 represents only 1% of naturally occurring carbon - which make you doubt the general accuracy of the book as a whole. He regards the fact that modern science grew up in Christendom as responsible for rigid thinking about absolute laws, and that if instead it had grown within a continuation of Greek philosophy it would have been very different; here Davies displays a general lack of understanding about ancient philosophy - where he does explicitly mention the "atomic swerve" of Epicurus he is way off the mark.
Overall a disappointing book.
Here is a latest synthesis of ideas, from a science communicator / author /Physicist, based on the whole gamut of our scientific knowledge. His thesis is that the missing element is “information” and how this is used in and by cells. He revisits the thought experiments of Maxwell’s Demon (could we somehow separate high energy molecules from low and extract energy) and Feynman’s “ratchet” to look at how life does not disobey the laws of thermodynamics and where information imparted via DNA/RNA helps to drive cells forward. Identifying the biological machines in the cells and how they are energised. Initially think programming in a computer but ultimately so much more complex. The author looks at the complex control, feedback and repair mechanisms in the cells (Cancer on this basis appears to be a potentially universal fault of all multicellular organisms where the repair mechanisms and the life cycle of cells get totally out of kilter). Interesting that differentiated cells have the same Genotype (DNA) expressed as differing functions (phenotype). Stem cells are the starting point which can become any final cell by genes being switched on or off. Electric fields (across cell membranes) , quantum mechanics and tunnelling , Laboratory experiments ( shades of Frankenstein?) all get a look in – basically the last 10 years of the advances in molecular biology. The final chapter ends up discussing the nature of “consciousness”– no more spoilers.
OK – so is this book just for “scientists” or are the ideas comprehensible to others?
The author lays it out with excellent logic (and latest up to date references for relevant work and ideas) starting with the ideas for current organisms and their interaction with their environments – updated Darwin and Dawkins!
Worth a read just to pick up the overall ideas if not the exact detail - which (even on my pre production copy) is heavily referenced
If the title of the book reminds you of something, that may be because you have read Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind. Paul Davies recalls Ryle’s famous concept of ‘the ghost in the machine’, by which Ryle scotches any idea of the ‘mind’ such as I was brought up to believe in, something like what we find in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Their souls did from their bodies fly
They fled to bliss or woe,
And every soul did pass me by
Like the whizz of my cross bow
That concept of the mind and soul is on the wrong page, says Ryle. What started to puzzle me as I read on was the suspicion that Davies partly goes along with this idea, and even more because he seems to see popular man-in-the-street thinking as support for such a view. And another of Ryle’s ideas that he could have done with considering is ‘the category mistake’. Suppose somebody being shown round Oxford sees, say, Christ Church, several colleges, the Bodleian and the Examination Schools, and then asks ‘But where is the University?’ Davies sounded to me as if he was toying with this way of thinking – he shows us the physical components of living matter and rightly lays stress on the abstract information that is equally vital, but I had the feeling that to complete a picture of ‘life’ all that was needed was a bit more of all that. It ain’t: it can’t be: that’s the category mistake, surely?
I then started to be troubled with some rather old-fashioned philosophical thinking, and I wish he had skipped it. He is clear and helpful in clarifying Darwin, but do I again detect some sympathy with Intelligent Design when he finds the sheer complexity of the human (or, presumably, other) eye, together with the sheer multiplicity of creature-types to be a criticism of Darwin, who had seen evolution as blind chance? Davies himself offers a more convincing up-to-date theory, but does he remember what the young Niels Bohr replied when they tried to convince him of intelligent design by reference to a tree? Said Niels ‘What other way would it be?’ Not content with this, he goes off at another (related) tangent when it comes to fashions in scientific thought regarding extra-terrestrial life. 30 or 50 years ago we were all, all alone, alone in a wide, wide cosmos. Now the boffins have returned to an orthodoxy that favours life elsewhere, and Davies is not impressed. His argument appears to be that there would not be enough time on the cosmic calendar for such life to develop; and I sensed his own refutation when he points out that life on earth got started very early. If it could start early here it could do likewise elsewhere, couldn’t it?
One very interesting and rewarding section concerns the origins and development of cancer. Here Davies is perceptive in putting his knowledge of evolution to what I hope may be enormous practical use in realising that cancer invents nothing new and is seemingly of very early origin. It has been known for long enough that cancer is not a ‘disease’ like smallpox or poliomyelitis, susceptible of scientific cures. I suppose the medical researchers must have twigged this long before any of the rest of us. Here, where Professor Davies is in the forward ranks of thinking, his earnest and readable ideas may achieve what I hope they can in the search for the breakthrough.
If I have largely seemed to ignore the lengthy remarks on quantum sciences, that is because there is so much other material to be found on such topics. I shall only say that in the readability stakes Professor Davies is near the head of the field. Perhaps I can finish where I started, with any supposed definition of life. Davies is presumably familiar with the classic text Definition by Ryle’s Oxford contemporary, the great Richard Robinson. Whether it was there or elsewhere, I know what Robinson said, because he said it to me – if we understand a word we don’t need a definition for it. A whole world of pointless waffle could be swept away with that simple thought. We know the signs of life when we see them, and that is as far as we are going to get with the matter.