Creating a Physical Biology The Three-Man Paper and Early Molecular Biology
edited by Phillip R. Sloan and Brandon Fogel
University of Chicago Press, 2011
Cloth: 978-0-226-76782-6 | Paper: 978-0-226-76783-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-76277-7
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.001.0001


In 1935 geneticist Nikolai Timoféeff-Ressovsky, radiation physicist Karl G. Zimmer, and quantum physicist Max Delbrück published “On the Nature of Gene Mutation and Gene Structure,” known subsequently as the “Three-Man Paper.” This seminal paper advanced work on the physical exploration of the structure of the gene through radiation physics and suggested ways in which physics could reveal definite information about gene structure, mutation, and action. Representing a new level of collaboration between physics and biology, it played an important role in the birth of the new field of molecular biology. The paper’s results were popularized for a wide audience in the What is Life? lectures of physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1944.
Despite its historical impact on the biological sciences, the paper has remained largely inaccessible because it was only published in a short-lived German periodical. Creating a Physical Biology makes the Three Man Paper available in English for the first time. Brandon Fogel’s translation is accompanied by an introductory essay by Fogel and Phillip Sloan and a set of essays by leading historians and philosophers of biology that explore the context, contents, and subsequent influence of the paper, as well as its importance for the wider philosophical analysis of biological reductionism.


Phillip R. Sloan is professor emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies and the Program in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame. Brandon Fogel is the Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Division of Humanities at the University of Chicago.


“Seventy-six years ago appeared a paper in German about the action of X-rays on the genetic material, written by three authors, hence known as the ‘Three-Man Paper.’ Here in Creating a Physical Biology, for the first time, is an excellent English translation of that paper, and alongside it are five essays evaluating its historical significance and philosophical claims. Why so much fuss about a little-known old paper? Read about it, and enter the scientific world of the physics and biology of the 1930s. Away with the retrospect of subsequent knowledge! Find here the Three-Man Paper’s context in 1930s Berlin, the target theory, the 1930s gene, and the relation between physics and biology. A very refreshing reevaluation.”
— Robert Olby, University of Pittsburgh

“This book should be required reading for anyone with a serious interest in the history of molecular biology. The Three-Man Paper is beautiful reading, but it is now known mainly from the presentation of its principal claims in Erwin Schrödinger’s What Is Life? (1944), which misrepresented the paper’s stance toward reductionism. The interpretive essays collected here review that issue and contribute to an ongoing reappraisal of pre-1940 research that helped shape what became molecular biology long before DNA was recognized as the genetic material or the structure of the double helix reshaped our understanding of biological processes. Perhaps surprisingly, the essays also show that the Three-Man Paper remains relevant to debates on reductionism even today.”
— Richard M. Burian, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

— Michael A. Goldman, Nature

“[I]nformative and illuminating. . . . Creating a Physical Biology is a great book with deeply insightful contributions from renowned scholars, a book that will continue to inspire and inform scholars, teachers, and students alike for generations to come.”
— Neeraja Sankaran, Yonsei University, Seoul, British Journal for the History of Science

Creating a Physical Biology offers an accessible version of the Three-Man Paper, a key historical document in the history of biology, with nuanced historical analyses and philosophically sophisticated discussions on the paper itself. This book will deservedly attract serious audience in the history and philosophy of science, especially those who are interested in the history of the concept of life and genes in early molecular biology, the relationship between biology and physics, and philosophical issues in reduction and causality in biology.”
— Doogab Yi, Metascience

“Not only do [Sloan and Fogel] provide a fine translation of the [“Three-Man Paper”] from German to English, but with their collaborators they also help the reader to put it in its scientific, philosophical, and social context.”
— Michel Morange, Centre Cavaillès, Ens, Journal of the History of Biology

“An important contribution to the students of the thinking of geneticists in the decades prior to Watson and Crick’s model DNA of 1953.”
— Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

“This is a much-needed work and should provoke deep interest and discussions for those who are curious about the history and philosophy of science and the origins of molecular biology.”
— Elof Axel Carlson, Stony Brook University, Quarterly Review of Biology



- Phillip R. Sloan, Fogel Brandon
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.003.0001
[Three-Man Paper, molecular biology, experimental genetics, chemistry, theoretical physics, X-ray technology, target theory]
This book is primarily concerned with the “Three-Man Paper” or the 3MP. Though its particular scientific conclusions would not stand the test of time, the 3MP was an important stimulus in the development of the new molecular biology, both methodologically and conceptually. Through a novel mixture of experimental genetics and chemistry with the most current theoretical physics, used to model the gene as a specifically molecular structure, and utilizing X-ray technology and contemporary “target” theory, the paper demonstrated the potential of such cross-disciplinary collaboration to provide detailed, physicalistic explanations of biological phenomena. Though its historical importance has never been in doubt, the paper has been largely inaccessible, due to its manner of publication. In presenting the first English translation, accompanied by analyses of its historical and philosophical significance, this book aims to provide access to this celebrated work and to contextualize its origins. (pages 1 - 28)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part I: Historical Origins of the Three-Man Paper

- William C. Summers
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.003.0002
[mutation process, Nikolai Timoféeff-Ressovsky, Karl Zimmer, X-rays, Max Delbrück, target-theory experiments, gene mutation, radioactivity, new physics, molecular biology]
This chapter begins by discussing the content of the Three-Man Paper (3MP): In it, Nikolai Timoféeff-Ressovsky, the geneticist, outlined the biological problem concerning the nature of the mutation process and what it says about the nature of the gene. Karl Zimmer, the biophysicist, outlined an approach to the structure of the gene using physical experiments based on the recently discovered action of X-rays in causing mutations. Max Delbrück used the evidence and concepts from the target-theory experiments to construct a model of mutation and then a theory of gene mutation and structure. This chapter then focuses on the developments in physics leading up to this important paper and shows that one of its crucial aspects involved the application and appreciation of physical concepts growing out of the early work on radioactivity and the physical nature of X-rays. The tools of the “new physics” were important elements in this dawning of molecular biology. (pages 38 - 57)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Phillip R. Sloan
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.003.0003
[Three-Man Paper, genetics, photosynthesis, scientific context, Max Delbrück, physicist, collaborative paper, atomic physics]
This chapter illuminates the origins of the discussions in the Three-Man Paper (3MP), the nature of the personnel involved, or the reasons why genetics was the focus of these discussions. It details the close interaction of inquiries into two areas of research, genetics and photosynthesis, that provided the scientific context for the genesis of the 3MP. Several puzzles emerge in the examination of the list of participants and the possible reasons for organizing such a discussion. In light of this, the present chapter poses two questions: First, in view of Max Delbrück's intellectual biography prior to 1935, why was he the only physicist in the group to participate in a collaborative paper on genetics? Second, what is the basis for the linkage of quantum, and more specifically atomic, physics to genetics that emerges in the 3MP, and what made the linkage novel? (pages 61 - 87)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Richard H. Beyler
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.003.0004
[biophysicists, radiation biology, Germany, Great Britain, United States, France, interdisciplinary network, Thre-Man Paper, molecular biology]
This chapter shows that, far from having been buried, the Three-Man Paper (3MP) was cited—often with approval, occasionally with disapproval—in the work of biophysicists in at least a dozen or so locales of research in radiation biology. As might be expected, these users of the 3MP were found primarily in Germany, but also occasionally in various other countries including Great Britain, the United States, and France. In other words, in its own day the 3MP was a prominent contribution to a vigorous discourse among an international and interdisciplinary network of scientists, a discourse with its own problemata that do not necessarily correspond to those of later molecular biology. Moreover, though the 1935 paper was a landmark, taken either as a signal success or target of critique within this discourse, it was by no means a founding document. (pages 99 - 126)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part II: Philosophical Perspectives on the Three-Man Paper

- Nils Roll-Hansen
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.003.0005
[Niels Bohr, philosophy of science, Max Delbrück, biological research program, empirical natural science, empirical biological research, Daniel McKaughan, teleological concepts, reductionism]
This chapter attempts to develop a more precise understanding of the relation between Niels Bohr's philosophy of science and Max Delbrück's biological research program. It is argued here that Delbrück's biological research program was reductionist in the sense that it pursued physical and chemical explanations for biological phenomena. Bohr's primary concern was with fundamental features of empirical natural science that implied a radical difference between physics and biology, however successful reductionism might be. He found that Delbrück's reductionist program did not contradict his own philosophical view, but he did not involve himself in empirical biological research. Daniel McKaughan has argued, in apparent contradiction to this claim, that “Bohr and Delbrück shared an antireductionist outlook” and that Delbrück hoped to demonstrate a legitimate role for “teleological concepts” in biological science. (pages 144 - 172)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Daniel J. McKaughan
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.003.0006
[biological speculations, teleomechanical framework, Niels Bohr, in-principle reductionism, physicochemical terms, biological complementarity, physics, biology]
This chapter argues that the key to understanding the larger issues raised by the Three-Man Paper (3MP) and Max Delbrück's lifelong project is to situate his biological speculations with respect to what the author refers to as the “teleomechanical” framework for relating physics and biology espoused by Niels Bohr, who, after all, had inspired Delbrück's transition from physics to biology. Contrary to the claim of some scholars that Delbrück was motivated by an in-principle reductionism, the author argues here that Bohr and Delbrück shared a core expectation that at least some aspects of life would turn out to be irreducible to physicochemical terms, but that there were also some important differences in the way they eventually came to think about biological complementarity. (pages 179 - 204)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part III: The Three-Man Paper

- Brandon Fogel
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.003.0007
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- N. V. Timoféeff-Ressovsky, K. G. Zimmer, M. Delbrück
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.003.0008
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- James Barham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226762777.003.0009
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Combined Bibliography

List of Contributors