From the November 28, 1936, issue


Children find in the work of frost, on windowpane or wayside pool, an endless source of wonder and delight. As we grow older, we unfortunately lose this pristine capacity for marveling at beauty too often repeated. But once in a while the beauty is so stressed and underlined, as in the photograph that adorns the front cover of the present issue of the Science News Letter, that for a breathless moment we regain our childhood eyes. Only crystals of solidified water on the leaves of a common kitchen herb, yet beauty such as no Cellini could ever quite capture in even the most obedient of silver.


The mysteries of protoplasm, the secrets of life, seem far removed from the cold abstractions of mathematics. In the popular mind, biology and mathematical physics are about as far apart as any two sciences could be.

But scientists are not letting them remain so. One of those who, by means of mathematics, are increasing our knowledge of living matter is Dr. N. Rashevsky of the University of Chicago.

One of the foremost characteristics of a living thing is its ability to reproduce its own kind. In the simplest forms of life—in organisms consisting of a single cell—this is accomplished merely by the cell dividing into two. Food is absorbed through the cell wall and presently, when the individual has become quite “grown up,” it splits into two and the process begins over.

One question that scientists must eventually settle is this: “How completely can the behavior of living cells be explained by our knowledge of physics and chemistry?”

In his work on this vital question, Dr. Rashevsky has not used test tubes, nor has he studied cells under a microscope. His only instrument has been high-powered mathematics. Among his many contributions so far has been the mathematical proof that certain tiny droplets of “nonliving” matter will absorb “food” from a solution, will grow until a certain size is reached, and then will divide. And the size to which they grow is nearly the same as that of living cells.

While no forces or influences other than the well-recognized ones of physics and chemistry are involved, his nonliving “paper-and-pencil models” show remarkable resemblance to living cells.

A further resemblance is their inability to form spontaneously. They must either be created by some outside agency or else be natural offspring of their “parents.”

Many living cells, of irregular shape when alive, become spherical after death. In this respect also Dr. Rashevsky has shown that nonliving matter can do the same thing. That is, he can design cells that will be nonspherical while absorbing food but that will become spherical if for any reason the food intake is stopped.

He would deny, however, that he has “explained” life processes. He has proved, nevertheless, that such processes as cell division do not necessarily involve any influences other than those that govern the behavior of nonliving matter.

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