Life is the Inevitable Outcome of Physics –“It’s as Unsurprising as Rocks Rolling Downhill” (WATCH Today’s ‘Galaxy’ Stream)

 

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The biophysicist Jeremy England, a 35-year-old associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made waves in 2013 with a new theory that cast the origin of life as an inevitable outcome of thermodynamics, reports Quanta Magazine, when under certain conditions, groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves so as to burn more and more energy, facilitating the incessant dispersal of energy and the rise of “entropy” or disorder in the universe. England said this restructuring effect, which he calls dissipation-driven adaptation, fosters the growth of complex structures, including living things.


The existence of life is no mystery or lucky break, he told Quanta in 2014, but rather follows from general physical principles and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

Outcomes of England’s computer simulations appear to back his general thesis about dissipation-driven adaptation, though the implications for real life remain speculative. The results of two of the most significant of these studies were published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and the other in Physical Review Letters (PRL) are summarized in his “What is Life” lecture shown below.

“This is obviously a pioneering study,” Michael Lässig, a statistical physicist and quantitative biologist at the University of Cologne in Germany, said of the PNAS paper written by England and an MIT postdoctoral fellow, Jordan Horowitz. It’s “a case study about a given set of rules on a relatively small system, so it’s maybe a bit early to say whether it generalizes,” Lässig said. “But the obvious interest is to ask what this means for life.”

England’s theory describes a simpler, simulated system of chemicals in which it is possible for exceptional structure to spontaneously arise — the phenomenon that England sees as the driving force behind the origin of life. “That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to acquire that structure,” England explained. The dynamics of the system are too complicated and nonlinear to predict what will happen.

“What Jeremy is showing is that as long as you can harvest energy from your environment, order will spontaneously arise and self-tune,” he said. Living things have gone on to do a lot more than England and Horowitz’s chemical reaction network does, he noted. “But this is about how did life first arise, perhaps — how do you get order from nothing.”

Read the in-depth Quanta’s articles: A New Thermodynamics Theory of the Origin of Life and First Support for a Physics Theory of Life 

The Daily Galaxy via Quanta Magazine

Image credit: Indiana University

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