“In my quest for the secret of life I started my research in histology. Unsatisfied by the information that cellular morphology could give me about life, I turned to physiology. Finding physiology too complex, I took up pharmacology. Still finding the situation too complicated, I turned to bacteriology. But bacteria were even too complex, so I descended to the molecular level, studying chemistry and physical chemistry. After twenty years' work, I was led to conclude that to understand life we have to descend to the electronic level and to the world of wave mechanics. But electrons are just electrons and have no life at all. Evidently on the way I lost life; it had run out between my fingers.”This quote comes from Albert Szent-Gyorgyi - born 121 years ago today. Gyorgyi was a Hungarian biochemist and Nobel Laureate who discovered vitamin C and worked out many of the components of what we now call the Krebs cycle.
His quote is the best encapsulation I know of the limitations of reductionism, and of the non-reduction of biology to physics in particular. Szent-Gyorgyi zeroes in on the essential problem; as we drill down from unquestionably living cells to molecules to unquestionably non-living individual electrons, life somehow slips away sometime during the transition from between our microscopes, pipettes and petri dishes.
At what point it exactly does this and how is a quest that will continue to occupy us for as long as there is a human mind capable of scientific reflection.