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The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Solving the Mystery of Life (Hardcover)

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What is life? For generations, scientists have struggled to make sense of this fundamental question, for life really does look like magic: even a humble bacterium accomplishes things so dazzling that no human engineer can match it. Huge advances in molecular biology over the past few decades have served only to deepen the mystery.

In this penetrating and wide-ranging book, world-renowned physicist and science communicator Paul Davies searches for answers in a field so new and fast-moving that it lacks a name; it is a domain where biology, computing, logic, chemistry, quantum physics, and nanotechnology intersect. At the heart of these diverse fields, Davies explains, is the concept of information: a quantity which has the power to unify biology with physics, transform technology and medicine, and force us to fundamentally reconsider what it means to be alive—even illuminating the age-old question of whether we are alone in the universe.

From life’s murky origins to the microscopic engines that run the cells of our bodies, The Demon in the Machine journeys across an astounding landscape of cutting-edge science. Weaving together cancer and consciousness, two-headed worms and bird navigation, Davies reveals how biological organisms garner and process information to conjure order out of chaos, opening a window onto the secret of life itself.

About the Author


Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist, broadcaster, and bestselling author of more than twenty books. A winner of the prestigious Templeton Prize, he is Regents' Professor of physics and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University.

Praise For…


“Brilliantly vivid. . . . The big idea is that . . . understanding the information flow in organisms might be the missing part of our scientific jigsaw puzzle. The informational approach, in Davies’s elegant and lucid exposition, is extremely promising.”

— Steven Poole

“Boundary-transcending. . . . Davies claims that life’s defining characteristics are better understood in terms of information. . . . With apologies to Charles Darwin, there is grandeur in this view of life.”

— Timo Hannay

“Important and imaginative.”

— Clive Cookson

“Wonderful. . . . Davies is a lucid writer and master storyteller. . . . Truly mind-blowing. . . . This is a cracking read.”

— Lewis Dartnell

“Fascinating. . . . This book is no lightweight holiday read you can laze through.”

— Bianca Nogrady

“A dizzying tour de force.”

— Richard Joyner

“Explaining one of the oldest questions—what is life?—is physicist Davies’s quest. . . . He searches for answers beyond the known, venturing into a place with no name.”

— Liz Else

"Davies’s lucid writing on this emerging scientific area is just what the pop-sci reader ordered. He is the perfect host to this admittedly dizzying journey, as he spins yarns of quantum demons, double-headed worms and everything in-between."

— Tushna Commissariat

“Davies narrates a gripping new drama in science, in which the plot is the story of life and the leading actor is information. With his characteristic blend of erudition and clarity, he brings together some of the most rapidly advancing knowledge in physics and technology to show how information controls biology. If you want to understand how the concept of life is changing, read this.”

— Andrew Briggs, University of Oxford

“This is one of the most exciting books I have read in years. Davies celebrates a significant anniversary with a demonically brilliant investigation of a fundamental question that only the very latest science and philosophy can deal with. Now we have a view from the master that's as thrilling as it is satisfying. Superb.”

— Robyn Williams

“Davies takes us on a fascinating tour of what is known about what life is. Along the way he speculates interestingly about what may become known. His theme, drawn from Darwin, Schrödinger, Turing, Gödel, Shannon, and von Neumann, is that what separates life from non-life is *information.* But how? Exploring that question illuminates biology by revealing its deep roots in physics, mathematics, and computer science.

— David Deutsch

“In this characteristically clearly written and engaging book, ranging from physics to biology and evolutionary theory to neuroscience, Davies strongly makes the case that at its core, life is about information flows.”

— George F.R. Ellis, University of Cape Town

“Davies is a courageous explorer of the boundaries of what we can know about our world. This book makes his explorations available to all who enjoy pushing those boundaries. Written with a light entertaining touch, even the most abstruse science acquires the clarity of exposition for which the author is justly renowned.”

— Denis Noble, University of Oxford

“A tour-de-force. . . . The Demon in the Machine is simultaneously rigorous, state-of-the-art, and highly readable—very hard to put down.”

— Michael Levin, Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University

“Davies always probes the deepest questions in science. Here, addressing the deepest of all—Schrödinger’s What is Life?—he tells us what life is: matter plus information—beyond the laws of physics, but compatible with them. To elaborate this thesis, he deploys his trademark talent: getting to the heart of the most abstruse and technical aspects of science (biology as well as physics), without jargon and with down-to-earth analogies.”

— Michael Berry, HH Wills Physics Laboratory

“This creative demon shadows DNA and the promise of quantum computing, answering some basic questions. What is consciousness, why is life so good at predicting where it might go next? The bridge connecting fundamental physics, biology, and the most advanced labs of computation is what Davies calls information patterns. He shows how it organizes for top-down creativity, and thereby holds off the grim reaper of entropy. With striking insight, and metaphors that illuminate the landscape of science today, Davies once again becomes our guide to the near future.”

— Charles Jencks, author of "The Garden of Cosmic Speculation”

The Demon in the Machine encompasses some of the most intriguing and unsolved mysteries of the universe: the existence of an arrow of time imprinted on the cosmos, and the emergence of life itself. Davies's crisp but rich narrative succeeds in untangling various highly complex ideas and processes, while fluently and intelligently setting out its own arrow of argument.”

— Mikhail Prokopenko, University of Sydney
Product Details
ISBN: 9780226669700
ISBN-10: 022666970X
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: October 16th, 2019
Pages: 272