Origins of molecular neurobiology: The role of the physicists

C. U M Smith*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The revolution in the foundations of physics at the beginning of the twentieth century suggested to several of its most prominent workers that biology was ripe for something similar. In consequence, a number of physicists moved into biology. They were highly influential in initiating a molecular biology in the 1950s. Two decades later it seemed to several of these migrants, and those they had influenced, that the major problems in molecular biology had been solved, and that it was time to move on to what seemed to them the final problem: the nervous system, consciousness, and the age-old mind-body problem. This paper reviews this "double migration" and shows how the hopes of the first generation of physicist-biologists were both realized and dashed. No new physical principles were discovered at work in the foundations of biology or neuroscience. On the other hand, the mind-set of those trained in physics proved immensely valuable in analyzing fundamental issues in both biology and neuroscience. It has been argued that the outcome of the molecular biology of the 1950s was a change in the concept of the gene from that of "a mysterious entity into that of a real molecular object" (Watson, 1965, p.6); the gates and channels which play such crucial roles in the functioning of nervous systems have been transformed in a similar way. Studies on highly simplified systems have also opened the prospect of finding the neural correlatives of numerous behaviors and neuropathologies. This increasing understanding at the molecular level is invaluable not only in devising rational therapies but also, by defining the material substrate of consciousness, in bringing the mind-body problem into sharper focus. Copyright © Taylor & Francis Inc.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)214-229
    Number of pages16
    JournalJournal of the History of the Neurosciences
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2005


    • Benzer
    • Bohr
    • Brenner
    • complementarity
    • crick
    • Delbrück
    • mind-body problem
    • molecular biology
    • philosophy
    • quantum physics
    • Schmitt
    • Schroedinger
    • Szilard


    Dive into the research topics of 'Origins of molecular neurobiology: The role of the physicists'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this