Bringing physics to bear on the phenomenon of life: the divergent positions of Bohr, Delbrück, and Schrödinger

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The received view on the contributions of the physics community to the birth of molecular biology tends to present the physics community as sharing a basic level consensus on how physics should be brought to bear on biology. I argue, however, that a close examination of the views of three leading physicists involved in the birth of molecular biology, Bohr, Delbrück, and Schrödinger, suggests that there existed fundamental disagreements on how physics should be employed to solve problems in biology even within the physics community. In particular, I focus on how these three figures differed sharply in their assessment of the relevance of complementarity, the potential of chemical methods, and the relative importance of classical physics. In addition, I assess and develop Roll-Hansen's attempt to conceptualize this history in terms of models of scientific change advanced by Kuhn and Lakatos. Though neither model is fully successful in explaining the divergence of views among these three physicists, I argue that the extent and quality of difference in their views help elucidate and extend some themes that are left opaque in Kuhn's model.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)433-458
Number of pages26
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C :Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2006 Sep 1



  • Biology
  • Complementarity
  • Erwin Schrödinger
  • Max Delbrück
  • Niels Bohr
  • Physics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science

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