Field of Science

Brenner, von Neumann and Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger's book, "What is Life"?, inspired many scientists like Crick, Watson and Perutz to go into molecular biology. While many of the details in the book were wrong, the book's central message that the time was ripe for a concerted attack on the structure of the genes based on physical principles strongly resonated.

However, influence and importance are two things, and unfortunately the two aren't always correlated. As Sydney Brenner recounts in detail here, the founding script for molecular biology should really have been John von Neumann's 1948 talk at Caltech as part of the Hixon Symposium, titled "The General and Logical Theory of Automata". In retrospect this talk was seminal and far-reaching. Brenner is one of the very few scientists who seems to have appreciated that von Neumann's influence on biology was greater than Schrödinger's and that von Neumann was right and Schrödinger wrong. Part of the reason was that while many biologists like Crick and Watson had read Schrödinger's "What is Life?", almost nobody had read von Neumann's "General and Logical Theory of Automata".

As Brenner puts it, Schrödinger postulated that the machinery for replication (chromosomes) also included the means of reproducing it. Von Neumann realized that the machinery did not include the means themselves but only the *instructions* for those means.
That's a big difference; the instructions are genes, the means are proteins. In fact as Freeman Dyson says in his "Origins of Life", von Neumann was the first to clearly realize the distinction between software (genes) and hardware (proteins). Why? Because as a mathematician and a generalist (and pioneer of computer science), he had a vantage point that was unavailable to specialist biologists and chemists in the field.

Unfortunately abstract generalists are often not recognized as the true originators of an idea. It's worth noting that in his lecture, von Neumann laid out an entire general program for what we now call translation, five years before Watson, Crick, Franklin and others even solved the structure of DNA. The wages of the theoretician are sparse, especially those of the one, as mathematician John Casti put it, who solves "only" the general case.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey Ash,
    Really an interesting post! Have been a long time follower of your blog posts here and on other platforms like 3quarksdaily. Just wondering, if there's any way to interact with you over email?

  3. Is there any area of modern science that von Neumann hasn't influenced? A man from the future, indeed!

  4. Von Neumann was quite a powerhouse of ideas. I read that transcript of the 1948 talk, and some of it was remarkably familiar and up to date while some of it was disorienting. Numerical analysis as we know it barely existed back then. It wasn't needed. Error correcting codes barely existed. Claude Shannon was just starting to publish his work on information theory. The transistor was introduced that same year. Meanwhile, I am typing this on a computer that can do billions of operations per second with an error rate so low that its designers barely needed to account for it in its design. Sometimes progress appears glacial, then one reads something like this and realizes how much has happened in 75 years.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS