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The Rainbow and the Worm: The Physics of Organisms [Paperback]

By Mae-Wan Ho (Author)
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Item description for The Rainbow and the Worm: The Physics of Organisms by Mae-Wan Ho...

This highly unusual book is a serious inquiry into Schrdinger's question, "What is life?", and at the same time a celebration of life itself. It takes the reader on a voyage of discovery through many areas of contemporary physics, from non-equilibrium thermodynamics and quantum optics to liquid crystals and fractals, all necessary for illuminating the problem of life. In the process, the reader is treated to a rare and exquisite view of the organism, gaining novel insights, not only into the physics but also into "the poetry and meaning of being alive". This book is intended for all who love the subject.

Contents: What Is It to Be Alive?; Do Organisms Contravene the Second Law?; Can the Second Law Cope with Organized Complexity?; Energy Flow and Living Cycles; How to Catch a Falling Electron; Towards a Thermodynamics of Organized Complexity; The Seventy-Three Octaves of Nature's Music; Coherent Excitation of the Body Electric; How Coherent Is the Organism?; Life is All the Colours of the Rainbow in a Worm; The Liquid Crystalline Organism; Crystal Consciousness; Quantum Entanglement and Coherence; The Ignorance of the External Observer; Time and Freewill.

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Item Specifications...

Studio: World Scientific Publishing Company
Pages   304
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.4" Width: 6" Height: 0.5"
Weight:   0.95 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Aug 1, 1998
Publisher   World Scientific Publishing Company
ISBN  9810234279  
ISBN13  9789810234270  

Availability  0 units.

More About Mae-Wan Ho

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Mae-Wan Ho, PhD, "is director of the Institute of Science in Society, and Science Advisor to the Third World Network. Her career spans more than thirty years of research and teaching in biochemistry, molecular genetics, and biophysics.

Mae-Wan Ho currently resides in London. Mae-Wan Ho has an academic affiliation as follows - The Open Univ., UK.

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > Professional & Technical > Professional Science > Biological Sciences > Biology > Biology
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Reviews - What do customers think about The Rainbow and the Worm: The Physics of Organisms?

The Coherent Organism  Apr 25, 2008
I've been reading more on efforts to invoke quantum physics in explaining life, so on a recommendation I picked up this book.

I found this to be is an engaging and thought-provoking book, extremely dense with information and ideas running from accepted science through increasingly speculative extrapolations and concluding with some free-form philosophizing. This book was published in 1993, with the second edition I read coming in 1998.

The early sections of Ho's book discuss life in thermodynamic terms. I was broadly familiar with the idea that life utilizes energy flow to build and maintain high levels of structural organization far from equilibrium. In several steps, and citing work of other scientists, she builds a case that explaining life in detail strains the traditional thermodynamic picture (which assumes microscopic homogeneity). She says intricately organized living things utilize molecular systems which transfer energy without thermalization (zero entropy growth). Energy is stored and used at the electronic level, not the thermal level. But how can these micro-level energy exchanges operate across the macroscopic dimensions of the organism? Ho says stored energy can amplify weak signals across larger distances.

Throughout these early chapters, Ho uses the word "coherent" to describe the (non-thermal) energy storage and transfer within the organism (she says stored energy is by definition coherent energy). She will come back to this idea later in the book and explicitly argue that it must involve quantum coherence specifically.

The energy we're talking about is electromagnetic. We know electrons move quickly and in organized fashion through crystals and super-cooled materials (superconductors). Could something like that be happening in the organism (despite the high temperature)? Ho uses the example of a solid state laser where energy flow induces a quantum phase transition which can take place very rapidly. She sketches how this might occur in living tissue and discusses the idea that cells could be solid state systems.

In a later chapter Ho leaves aside the solid state system model of the organism in favor of specifically identifying it as a liquid crystal system. She became convinced of this in part by examining fruit fly larva under a polarizing microscope. The title of the book comes from the colorful organized patterns she detected. She believes the type of organization seen is evidence that organisms are essentially (coherently organized) liquid crystals.

Ho has a chapter toward the end of the book on quantum physics. She summarizes the familiar phenomena of quantum entanglement and coherence (2 slit experiment, EPR, etc.). Then she tries to convey why the ideas and arguments of the preceding chapters lead her to conclude it is indeed quantum coherence (superposition of states, non-local entanglement) which prevails in the organism. But has she made the case? In a key passage she admits the evidence is circumstantial. For the mainstream scientific community to get on board, we'll need more.

Likely, we'll need secure experimental results which demonstrates a biological system clearly exploiting non-trivial quantum effects. I note There was a recent study on photosynthesis than may fit into this category.
A Great Job in Making Exotic Science More Accessible  Mar 12, 2008
This book is more than a review of scientific dicoveries regarding "life" as it places the meaning of life in a new and fresh perspective. Although the application of thermodynamics in biology is not new as this can be dated back to Schrodinger's work in 1945 and Morowitz's in 1970's, Ho's work is more than the extension of these works. Albeit non-equilibrium thermodynamics is essential in explaining life as a dissipative structure, you will be surprised to see that she added something special to this well-established field as far as life is concerned.

To me, the most striking features of this work is the incorporation of new discoveries in physics and chemistry in explaining life phenomena. The application of Quantum Theory, Quantum Electrodynamics, and Electromagnetic theories in describing and explaining life is very interesting and intriging and can be considered as a breakthrough in scientific thinking.

Another interesting point is its readability. Although, I have to admit that you need to have a good background in science to appreciate this work, Ho's writing style is very informal. The equations are basic and are presented only where necessary. I think she tries her best to simplify most of complex tecnical concepts so that they can be more accessible.

I would recommend this book as a popular science book to the readers with technical background.

Doy Sundarasaradula
March 12th, 2008
Both crazy and great  Aug 19, 2007
While Ho pays considerable homage to Erwin Schrodigner's "What Is Life?", The Rainbow and the Worm is better seem as a revision of William James Sidis' brilliant "The Animate and the Inanimate". Much of Ho's reformulation (or reinterpretation really) of the Second Law of Thermodynamics draws directly from the work of Sidis. And, in fact, the central question of What Is Life? related to this underpins both works. While she never addresses Sidis' theory of reversability or positive and negative zones in space, she does explicate Life in the same manner of a. excitability, b. COP > 1, and c. a teleological "half-law" 0 =< Delta S < infinity (with the other half being -inf < dS =< 0). Much as Kant tells us we wear "cause colored glasses", Ho tells us that we wear "entropy colored glasses" so to speak. I actually belive Sidis does a better job of explaining this concept however. She proceeds to recast entropy and the "arrow of time" as decoherence and modernizes Sidis' different rates of time idea (which, incidentally, appears whole in an epsiode of the original Star Trek) as fractal space-time. While she does not address this issue, a continuous but nondifferentiable time is the only solution to Zeno's Paradox as well. Mae-Wan Ho is as much a process philosopher as she is a biophysicist. This is a work that has just as many implications for social science as it does the "hard" sciences, a topic Ho has expounded on at some length in her subsequent work and writings. It is an important point that the social science significance and findings are no less "rigorous" than the physics involved. I suggest reading The Inanimate and the Animate first as well as the works of Henri Louis Bergson (particularly Time and Free Will). Ho wears her influences on her sleeve in this respect, and both men's thinking will be further elucidated by Ho's work as well as simultaneously helping to elucidate her own elaboration. In a word, brilliant; one of the most consequential works of our day. I only wish she had pushed the envelope of Sidis and Bergson even more than she does -- so much remains to be explored and expanded upon.
How a living cell overcomes constraints of the Second law of thermodynamics.  May 17, 2007
This book is not for the faint hearted! It requires an undergraduate level of thermodynamics, and some working knowledge of biology, and laws of relativity and quantum physics. The author has done her best to write this book to a general reader about physics and biology of life; a monotonous and tedious job to describe in a book of 250 pages. She is influenced by the work of celebrated physicist Erwin Schrodinger and his passion for understanding life. The reader can see Schrodinger's influence throughout this book. Chapter 2 to 6 deals with Schrödinger's concept in explaining how a living cell exports entropy in order to maintain its own entropy at a low level or near zero there by circumventing the constraints of Second law of thermodynamics.

In the second half of the book the author explores various physical and chemical concepts to show how nature keeps cellular entropy production to a minimum. First, the author discusses how the energy transductions in living cells occur, and she determines that heat transfer is not the major form of energy transduction. The biomacromolecules are setup within the cell to near solid state or liquid crystalline like state such that it promotes synchronicity and coherence through electric, electromagnetic and electro mechanical interactions, which are primary source for energy. Coupled electron transfer reactions and other cyclic process that occur in a nested space - time organization within the cell helps minimize entropy since, for a coupled molecular process the entropy production is zero.

Intermolecular dipolar interactions among membrane bound proteins/enzymes, and nucleic acids which act as biological semiconductor devices; and quantum tunneling operate in many electron and proton transfer proteins. DNA and RNA are large dielectric molecules that can sustain coherent excited sates. In chapter 8 - 10 the importance of coherent process that removes biochemical processes away from thermodynamic equilibrium by energy flow have been discussed. The operation of quantum coherence, a coherent state that maximizes both global cohesion and local freedom such that micro domains and nested compartments within the cytosol or nucleus or membrane right down to a single biomacromolecules all functioning autonomously doing different things and at different rates generating flow patterns yet all coupled together in supporting the cellular process. A high degree of coherence, coordination, compartmentalization and regulation of multiple biochemical reactions involving numerous proteins, enzymes, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and lipids is proposed as a compensating mechanism to minimize entropy. While the author does her best to bring everything in literature together to support a reasonable hypothesis, but the experimental evidences in support of these concepts operating in a cell is not very strong and hence it is some way to go for universal acceptance.

One important feature devised by nature in electron transfer reactions is a metal mediated reaction that has never been addressed in this book. These transfers are facile quantum chemical reactions where nature has used transition metals (with vacant 3d orbitals) to promote electron transfers between low molecular weight biomolecules that otherwise would be thermodynamically disallowed. Iron, copper and manganese perform key cellular reactions. Alkali metals such as sodium, potassium and calcium also participate in many ionic reactions that offer thermodynamic advantages to a living cell.

I found this author to be enigmatic since the book is heavily regionalized in its assertions. She refers to the scientific thought conveyed in this work as Western science throughout this book. Chapter 14 offers a very interesting discussion of entropy, and chapter 15 reminisces about the philosophy of life.
A new look at life from an untraditional scientist  Sep 3, 2002
First of all, Mae-Wan Ho is a woman. The rest of these posts describe the author using "him" and "he," which demonstrates an unfortunate gender stereotype about scientists.

Mae-Wan Ho examines the question, "What is life?" using insights from physics, biology, and chemistry. The author is a professor and research scientist who works outside of the maintream, to say the least. She is best known for her activism against genetic engineering. Her writings take a "holistic" perspective on science; she tries to acheive understanding of the big questions (life, free will, etc) by combining ideas from many different fields.

The book is not flaky or meta-physics. It won't tell you about life energies or world consciousness. It is also not a layman's introduction to any particular established field, as many science books are. Rather, it is a new look at "life," somewhat scientifically rigorous (she is a professional researcher) but presented so that it's accessible to non-scientists. She has a chapter describing how life operates far from the theormodynamic equilibrium, which was very interesting. On the other hand, the final chapter about optics is somewhat far-fetched in my opinion. The book's ideas are generally outside of the mainstream.

All in all, it is a refreshing change from the 10023675th book about superstrings and selfish genes, for those of you who like science books. It's a short book, and worth the few hours it takes to read it. I would highly recommend it as pleasure reading for amateur science fans, or as a book that actual scientists with some time on their hands can read for a new perspective. (I myself am getting my Ph.D. at a top engineering school.) I think it will not appeal to most conservative professional scientists, who tend to reserve their respect for researchers who are experts in a small and established field.

Finally, don't worry about the equations; you can skip them and get the general idea.


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