Robert Rosen


“Perhaps the first lesson to be learned from biology is that there are lessons to be learned from biology.” 

– Robert Rosen, Essays on Life Itself


“I do not accept a priori subjective conditions, imposed in advance, as constituting “scientific knowledge”, or as bounding either the external world, or our capabilities of comprehending it. The history of science has always gone in precisely the other direction; the imposition of such conditions has always proved to be wrong. This is essentially what I have called complexity; a system (mathematical or physical) is complex to the extent that it does not let itself be exhausted within a given set of (subjective) limitations.”

– Robert Rosen, The Limits of the Limits of Science


Robert Rosen (1934-1998) was a theoretical biologist who strived to answer the question the Nobel physicist Erwin Shrödinger posed in 1943: “What is Life?” To this day, what it is that makes an organism alive has remained unanswered by conventional biology, chemistry and by the physics under which the former two topics are thought to be subsumed.

As a student of physicist and theoretical biologist Nicholas Rashevsky, and later as professor emeritus of biophysics at Dalhousie University, Rosen came to realize that the Newtonian paradigm of physics – the world of mechanisms – was inadequate to describe biological systems; that is, one could not properly answer the question “what is life?” in a Newtonian formalism. Rather than biology being a mere subset of already-known physics, it turned out that biology had profound lessons for physics, and science in general.

Laid down clearly and rigorously in his book Life Itself, Rosen demonstrated the rather arbitrary strictures of the Newtonian paradigm, and he laid the groundwork for a more inclusive type of physics – one that is driven by the necessity of rigorously explaining biological organisms in physical terms. 

In the posthumously published Essays on Life Itself, Rosen expounded on the innumerable ways in which the limits of Newtonian thinking make themselves apparent in areas ranging from biology to the mind-body problem to quantum mechanics. And that the way out of these dilemmas is not to equivocate on the underlying science, but, rather, to undertake a rigorous review of physics and science – one that leads to an expansion of science, not for the sake of expansion, but for the sake of following where the science leads. 

Further biographical information about Robert Rosen can be found on the Rosen family website.

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