A New Physics Theory of Life

Pic: B. Lachner (CC)

Pic: B. Lachner (CC)

Natalie Wolchover writes at Quanta:

Why does life exist?

Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.”

His idea, detailed in a recent paper and further elaborated in a talk he is delivering at universities around the world, has sparked controversy among his colleagues, who see it as either tenuous or a potential breakthrough, or both.

England has taken “a very brave and very important step,” said Alexander Grosberg, a professor of physics at New York University who has followed England’s work since its early stages. The “big hope” is that he has identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life, Grosberg said.

“Jeremy is just about the brightest young scientist I ever came across,” said Attila Szabo, a biophysicist in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics at the National Institutes of Health who corresponded with England about his theory after meeting him at a conference. “I was struck by the originality of the ideas.”

Others, such as Eugene Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry, chemical biology and biophysics at Harvard University, are not convinced. “Jeremy’s ideas are interesting and potentially promising, but at this point are extremely speculative, especially as applied to life phenomena,” Shakhnovich said.

England’s theoretical results are generally considered valid. It is his interpretation — that his formula represents the driving force behind a class of phenomena in nature that includes life — that remains unproven. But already, there are ideas about how to test that interpretation in the lab.

“He’s trying something radically different,” said Mara Prentiss, a professor of physics at Harvard who is contemplating such an experiment after learning about England’s work. “As an organizing lens, I think he has a fabulous idea. Right or wrong, it’s going to be very much worth the investigation.”

At the heart of England’s idea is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of increasing entropy or the “arrow of time.” Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy is a measure of this tendency, quantifying how dispersed the energy is among the particles in a system, and how diffuse those particles are throughout space. It increases as a simple matter of probability: There are more ways for energy to be spread out than for it to be concentrated. Thus, as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out. Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed. A cup of coffee and the room it sits in become the same temperature, for example. As long as the cup and the room are left alone, this process is irreversible. The coffee never spontaneously heats up again because the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against so much of the room’s energy randomly concentrating in its atoms.

Although entropy must increase over time in an isolated or “closed” system, an “open” system can keep its entropy low — that is, divide energy unevenly among its atoms — by greatly increasing the entropy of its surroundings. In his influential 1944 monograph “What Is Life?” the eminent quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger argued that this is what living things must do. A plant, for example, absorbs extremely energetic sunlight, uses it to build sugars, and ejects infrared light, a much less concentrated form of energy. The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure.

Read more here.

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  • Ronnie Pudding

    Is that a boob?

    • BuzzCoastin

      oh that I had more than one up vote to give

    • Juan

      That was exactly what I thought. You beat me to it.

    • Simon Valentine

      the order behind orders congratulates you on your recent vision and invites you to behold the mysteries.

    • RotorRob

      Short answer no, other, you seen many boobs?

  • BuzzCoastin

    science & physics are huristics
    generalizations about a rather complex energentic force
    that can’t be comprehended as a whole
    and which wee experience through a darked lens dimwittedly

    you can’t know it
    but you can be it

    • Juan

      The Tao.

    • Rhoid Rager

      But equations get you funding, and funding gets you tenure, and tenure gets you….oops ran out of incentives….

      • mannyfurious

        Status? Status gets you… security? Security gets you…immortality?

        • Rhoid Rager

          How about: tenure gets you security, security gets you status, status gets you the lecture circuit, the lecture circuit gets you a movie deal, a movie deal gets you laid, and getting laid gets you…a divorce? no, wait, that didn’t work out as planned….

          • Andrew

            Getting laid allows you to pass on your genes to the next generation. So equations help life continue.

          • Rhoid Rager

            But only if the bags of skin that hold those genes study more equations.

          • emperorreagan

            Tenure gets you security, security lets you rely on the efforts of eager grad students to produce research instead of your own efforts, the efforts of your students allow you to gain status, with status you can begin to abuse your lab as a source of secondary income by using your grad students as unpaid employees of your consulting company, the profits of said company can pay for your yacht/golf/whatever club membership, said membership gets you access to people of the next level of wealth/status for both discrete affairs with wealthy women and networking opportunities…

          • Rhoid Rager

            articulated like a fellow jaded grad student…
            grad skool was always an ongoing trauma for me–you don’t know enough, you haven’t read enough, you can’t pay your tuition, you haven’t published enough, you haven’t been to enough conferences–how can such an environment actually produce novel thought?

          • emperorreagan

            To me, it felt like you spend all of your time trying to shine someone’s shoe. It’s already been designed, built, worn, polished…but they want it just a little bit shinier. I never felt like there was room for creativity.

          • Rhoid Rager

            i got the shoe shine boy vibe too. never sat well with me, so i changed supervisors twice and ended up with a super nice supervisor that was all laid back. i was the blacksheep of my department. i used to crash intradepartmental conferences and throw out these anarchist-themed questions….intellectual hand grenades as one of my colleagues called them. i enjoyed the notoriety of being the only (open) anarchist in the political science dept…. teehee

          • Simon Valentine

            no, no, exactly as planned i’m afraid. she got the money, dog and house she wanted.

          • mannyfurious

            I like that one better. Good job.

      • davakins

        adjuncts to boss around

  • Simon Valentine

    the proverbial procedural program prospect proponent properly proposes products probably procured prohibitively *end article*

    • Rhoid Rager

      Since said scientific syllogism seems succinctly stated, snarky students somewhat stridently speak suppositions suspiciously soliciting scrutiny. So sage swiftly sasses “Silence! Scholars seldom speak so summarily. Sufficient sagacity subverts stupidity subtly–succumbing silently…surreptitiously.” So speaketh sound sapience.

      • Simon Valentine

        lol you know how to joke

      • Calypso_1

        Now! – in Japanese. Consonance included.

        • Rhoid Rager

          Do you know this one?
          うらにわにはにわにわにはにわにわとりがいる
          ura niwa niwa niwa niwa niwa niwa niwatori ga iru.

          This is a real sentence with over 800 meanings depending on what kanji you use. The most common meaning is: There are two chickens in the back garden and two in the front garden.

          • Calypso_1

            Nope, I took a semester of Japanese but only put forth the effort to delve into root word associations that fit my interests instead of acquiring any functional skills.

      • Calypso_1

        Verily, verily veritas Valentine, vous Varicose Vengeance:

        (Valediction)
        Vocative vebal vatics, venerable vitae vaunt vesperal varsity vestments
        versus vapid volge vulgate. Vae vacuity! Vow visuognosis!
        Venturous verbolatry, votive vagile verbosity venatically variates versions vivavoce. Vis-a-vis VLAN Voila!

        (Varia)
        Vast voix-celeste, Versal vacuum vessels, vehicles vacillate: vibration/veil, volte/void – vertiginous vortices.
        Vector vinculum VonNeumann voodoo via Van der waals, valence, Voronoi voxels (vexillogic voluminous vialled vertices) validate variables.

        Vivid vistas vail vivific voltaism verging vespertine vulneraries. Vestibular vivarium variegates vegetal velaments. Veriforms vellicate, viable verticillus volute vestigial verifications. Vulvation vivisects vomeronasal volition. Virulent vicariance verso vicissitude.

        (Vertu)
        Vive verbose vogueing! Van vague vocabulary – Voice vehement, volley volubility vivamus!

        Valet! V.S.O.P…vorpal vasoconstriction venges visage. Vino vanishes vexation.

        (Vade)

  • Lookinfor Buford

    The Last Question..
    ..is the answer.

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