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on 5 May 2017
What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology (Oxford Landmark Science)

Addy Pross explains how the emerging field of systems chemistry is providing insights into how life emerged from non-life. His working definition of life as "a self-sustaining kinetically stable dynamic reaction network derived from the replication reaction" typifies his thought-provoking explanation of this complex subject.
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on 23 October 2016
At the risk of providing a spoiler, the secret is revealed at last. Eventually we get to the punchline of Addy Pross' book:

"...the following working definition of life: a self-sustaining kinetically stable dynamic reaction network derived from the replication reaction."

The book sets out to address the hoary old question of how life, with its increasing complexity and order, can develop in spite of the second law of thermodynamics.

The key argument in the book, as I understand it, is that biological stability is based on the principle of maximising 'dynamic kinetic stability' (DKS). This can be contrasted with conventional chemical stability, which is static stability, in which reactions come to an end in a closed system when thermodynamic equilibrium is reached, under the principle especially of the second law of thermodynamics.

A nice physical example given of DKS is a waterfall, which persists over a long period (e.g. geological timescale), but its material content, in particular the water, is continually changing. Likewise in a cell, a biological system following the DKS principle, the material, proteins etc., are continually turning over - dying and their components recycled. You and I are not same you and I as we were yesterday. Some essence of us persists, sufficient for us to claim continuity, but we are not made of the same material we were the day before.

Biological systems are still subject to the second law of course. DKS applies to a special class of sub-systems within overall systems obeying the second law. DKS systems must be open systems, needing an influx of energy and raw materials, whether they are biological like a cell or physical like a waterfall. In DKS chemical/biochemical systems, reactions continue. Pross provides a lovely and memorable 'Russian doll' metaphor to clarify how these principles can coexist and gives an example comparing a specific explanation of why your car has broken down to the general 'because of the second law of thermodynamics'.

In other words, the second law is not the only principle in town. In appropriate circumstances, the DKS principle will apply, and systems such as biological systems will persist. He cites experiments with chemical brews of RNA molecules as demonstrations of the power of Darwinian evolution applied at the molecular level of the principle of maximising the DKS to establish a 'self-sustaining kinetically stable dynamic reaction network derived from the replication reaction'.

It was well worth reading just for this wonderful insight, but rather wordy and repetitious. I liked the helpful analogies he provided, but I didn't feel the reader really needs a whole chapter devoted to the topic of "Understanding 'Understanding'". There's more in the book than I have described, including much interesting historical background, but still I had the impression that even though it's not a long book, the author was struggling somewhat to fill the pages.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The core theme of this book - how did life begin? At what point did chemical processes become biological ones- is also the core theme of programmes in Prof. Brian Cox's feted TV series 'Wonders of Life'.
Addy Proos takes the simplified science of Prof. Cox's mainstream programme significantly further, but still maintains readability. As a theoretical chemist, Proos' focus is on the chemical origins of life, hence the subtitle 'When Chemistry Becomes Biology'.

The chapter titles offer an excellent precis of the contents: 'Living Things are So Very Strange', a brief history of the topic covered in 'The Quest for A Theory of Life', 'Understanding 'Understanding' ', an introduction to the reductionist approach, 'Stability and Instability' explains why chemical reactions occur.
There is an initial examination of 'The Knotty Origin of Life Problem'. 'Biology's Crisis of Identity' examines just that, with the final two chapters moving on to the most recent developments in bio-chemistry, in 'Biology is Chemistry' and finally an examination of the key theme 'What is Life'?

Unlike Prof. Cox's books diagrams are fairly minimal - and whilst the test is scholarly, it would not be beyond a bright GCSE student with an interest in science. It isn't a fully mainstream book, but provides a useful summary of a rapidly developing branch of science.
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on 14 December 2015
The titel is ambitious, however the contents I find disappointing. It is more a phylosophical view with a near endless repetition of the same arguments.
Very little chemistry and biology.
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on 18 November 2016
Started off being interested in what was being said but the more I read on the more I skipped and skipped and skipped. Insulting to the intelligence really and annoyed at myself for spending money on it.
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VINE VOICEon 15 May 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
An interesting book which attempts to throw light on a topic we assume is well understood but in reality is much more complex and knotty than you might think.

Evolution right? That explains it. Well no it doesn't. Evolution explains what happens once life gets going, how it develops and branches into the range of diverse forms we see around us today. The harder question is how does a soup of chemicals become organised into self sustaining, replicating organisms? Addy Pross guides us through the some of the challenges that arise in answering this question. The difficulties in actually defining "life", in defining "understanding", the age old battle between reductionism and holism and bringing together disparate disciplines to improve our knowledge of a fundamental process. Concepts in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Philosophy are all part of the journey and he covers the ground in language simple enough for the layman not to be left foundering.

His writing style is clear, his use of analogy illuminating and ideas on teleonomy, controversial and thought provoking. I honestly don't have the background knowledge in the subject to critically assess his contentions but I did enjoy the book and would recommend it as good introduction to a topic.
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on 24 June 2016
As a chemist I understand Addy Pross's reasoning, though at critical points it break down - the use of the term 'most scientists agree' sends alarm bells ringing. If you carefully try and join the dots in his argument you find that he predominantly falls into the reductionistic camp. He should really familiarise himself with predator-prey models to find out that the kind of digital assumptions he makes about what happens when there is competition for energy resources are too simplistic and there are too many examples where what he asserts is just not true in the holistic sense. He also flip flops on the whole evolution issue and his final conclusions about the stages of development of life really argue a case of 'no explanation followed by reductionistic explanation followed by no explanation'. I am not a creationist, but I also am enough of a scientist to know that evolution is only a weak theory - a story at best - which tries to connect only a fraction of the 'dots' of what we can observe and what we know into a plausible story, but leaves too many 'dots' disconnected. I had high expectations and there are places of good writing and interesting facts but the logic breaks down at crucial points. Nice attempt though.
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In 1944 Erwin Schrodinger published a little book with the title, `What is Life?' Though, obviously not the first to pose this question, it is purported to have provided at least part of the inspiration to those, such as Watson and Crick, who would later go some way to answering it.

Addy Pross, though using the same title, adds the sub-title, `How Chemistry Becomes Biology' and this is quite odd as he spends most of this very slim book attempting to persuade the reader of exactly the opposite; i.e. that biology is simply a sub set of chemistry, or at least its natural extension. His justification for this curious and, I imagine irritating - at least to biologists, strangely naïve claim is his depiction of the transformation from non-living to living matter as a two stage process the first of which, the abiological phase, which is governed, principally, according to the established laws of chemistry, results from the autocatalytic replication of organic molecules such as RNA resulting in replicating networks or primitive forms of embryonic proto-life. The second, biological, phase is governed by the `rules' of evolution as elucidated by Darwin leading to an increase in organic complexity and the biodiversity we see today.

Furthermore, he suggests the very same evolutionary rules that underpin the existence and survival of all living things also governed the `persistence' of these early organic molecules, which were `selected for' according to their `fitness' as replicators with fitness being determined largely by their relative dynamic kinetic stabilities (DKS): basically, those that could replicate the quickest and thus were more kinetically stable persisted longer, replicated more often and, as a result of mutations, gave rise to chemical diversity and increasingly more complex molecules the interactions of which produced the kind of `emergent properties' postulated as being, at east potentially, characteristic of primitive forms of proto-life. In order to convince the reader of the plausibility of his hypothesis he provides, early on, a brief explanation of the philosophical basis of the `scientific method'; i.e. induction, and then proceeds, in a kind of `sleight of hand' way, to outline his argument on the basis of this underlying assumed `inductive' authority.

The book does revisit interesting questions and posits some potentially intriguing ways in which these might be answered. However, in no way, does it get anywhere near answering the basic question posed by its title and it would have benefitted hugely if its author had been a little more `up-front' about this.

Finally, those readers who do not have, at least, some acquaintance with science and its often recondite terminology, might find the book, though short in length, a little heavy going.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 February 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Addy Pross appears to come from the "all things emanate from chemistry" argument. It's isn't a brand new argument but one that bubbles to the surface every so often as human beings look to explain all the things which occur around us.

It is an interesting and thought provoking read which allows you to consider your own thoughts on the ideology, while offering some ideas of its own, but these are only ideas as yet with no solid research behind it. It is, however, an interesting read for anyone interested in the subject.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
What is Life - How Chemistry becomes Biology


I am a Biologist and became one as I wanted to know what life is all about. I teach genetics.

The book

I am often asked and wonder myself what exactly life is and why it exists at all. I have spent much of my life trying to come to grips with this question.

Life works because we are here but we really can't define it and fully explain what makes a series of chemicals and their reactions between them cause life. In this book Addy Ross presents the evidence and tries to explain what it is all about from the science point of view and also introduces some of the laws that make life possible. He pulls information from Chemistry, Bio Chemistry, Physics and various other disciplines.

The book leaves the reader with the facts to make up his or hers own mind, it's not trying to sell a wholly science solution which is commendable.

The language used is easy to understand and the explanations are comprehensive. There are plenty of references in the back for those who want to delve a bit deeper and a comprehensive index.
Overall and enjoyable and thought provoking book that should be on everyone's reading list.
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