A book by Werner R. Loewenstein< read all 1 reviews
I was fuzzy on the meaning of the word "touchstone" and therefore consulted two dictionaries. It has two separate but related meanings: a stone used to measure (or test) the quality of metals, such as gold and silver; also, a means by which to determine authenticity. The title of Loewenstein's book suggests that he will discuss "the" (not "a") touchstone of "life." Hmmm. My curiosity was aroused.
For me, reading this book proved to be a difficult but rewarding intellectual experience. In it, Loewenstein examines molecular information, cell communication, and the "foundations of life." His original purpose was to write a book about intercellular communication but, as he got to "the heart" of this subject, "a picture materialized seemingly out of the blue: a continuous intra- and intercellular network where, with DNA at the core, molecular information flowed in gracefully interlaced circles. That apparition had an allure I could not resist, and so this became a book about information."
The timing of the book's publication (1999) coincides with (a) numerous and significant revelations concerning the interaction of the brain with the mind and (b) rapid development of the Internet, especially of the WWW. As a non-scientist, I was fascinated by Loewenstein's analysis of "interlaced circles" and their relevance to the technological transmission of information. (In Holding On to Reality, Albert Borgmann addresses several of the same issues Loewenstein does but from somewhat different perspectives.) As Loewenstein explains in the Introduction, he set out to prove that "this information flow, not energy per se, is the prime mover of life -- that molecular information flowing in circles brings forth the organization we call `organism' and maintains it against the ever-present disorganizing pressures in the physics universe. So viewed, the information circle becomes the unit of life."
Part One introduces the entity Information; Part Two "takes up the full-grown weft of circles, the intracellular communication network; Part Three deals with the intercellular communication network, "the web that ties all cells of an organism together; and Part Four provides "a short philosophical foray where we see the principle [ie the principle of information economy which is, for Loewenstein, the guiding principle of biological evolution] through to its heuristic conclusion." Who will most enjoy reading this book? Loewenstein claims to have written it both for the scientist and other reader with an interest in science..."no specialized knowledge of biology or physics is assumed in advance." In my opinion, however, such knowledge would be very helpful. Back to the question. As a non-scientist, I highly recommend it to all the other non-scientists out there who occupy decision-making positions in their organizations and who ask the following questions:
1. What is the nature of "the information circle"?
2. What are its primary functions, possible applications, and potential benefits?
3. What is its relevance to the Internet and, especially, to the WWW?
4. Finally, how can the answers to these first three questions be of specific value to my own organization?
Loewenstein provides (or at least suggests) answers to #1-3. In process, he helps his reader to determine an appropriate answer to #4. Although I have neither gold nor silver of questionable quality, I do have some business issues of questionable authenticity which Loewenstein has prepared me to address with much greater precision.
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Werner Loewenstein, a cell biologist at Woods Hole Biological Laboratories, has written a remarkably engaging book tying together information theory, thermodynamics, molecular biology, and the structure of cells. The subject is not one to which the human brain is well suited, but with Loewenstein's guidance you may get a better grasp on concepts like entropy than you've ever had before.
Loewenstein describes life as a circus: "Flowing in from the cosmos, information loops back onto itself to produce the circular information complex we call Life.... To those who are inside the Circus, it will always seem the greatest show on Earth, though I can't speak for the One who is outside it."
The Touchstone of Life covers some of the ground surveyed in Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach and Kauffman's At Home in the Universe, but with an even stronger sense of the physical realities constraining the "Circus." It should prove fascinating for anyone interested in biology, consciousness, physics, or the future of computing. --Mary Ellen Curtin