“One can best feel in dealing with living things how primitive physics still is,” said Albert Einstein. “Can life be explained in terms of physics or will it always be a mystery? And if physics can explain life, is existing physics up to the job, or might it require something fundamentally new – new concepts, new laws even?” asks Arizona State University cosmologist, theoretical physicist, and astrobiologist, Paul Davies answering Einstein.
Because nobody knows how non-life transitioned to life on Earth, observes Davies, it is impossible to estimate the odds of it springing forth elsewhere in the universe. To date we know of just one sample of life, that which exists here on Earth.
A Revision of the Nature of Physical Law
“Given that the conceptual gulf between physics and biology is so deep, and that existing laws of physics already provide a perfectly satisfactory explanation of the individual atoms and molecules that make up living organisms, it is clear that a full explanation of living matter entails something altogether more profound: nothing less than a revision of the nature of physical law itself,” suggests Davies.
What is missing, he observes in The Demon in the Machine, is a comprehensive set of principles that will explain all the puzzles in the magic box of life within a unitary theory. Life, says Davies, “opens up regions of ‘possibility space’ that are inaccessible to non-living systems.”
Life’s Origin -Unique in the Universe?
“During my career, opinion has shifted from life’s origin being a bizarre fluke unique in the universe (‘almost a miracle’ in the words of Francis Crick), to the belief that the universe is teeming with life (‘a cosmic imperative’ in the words of Christian de Duve),” Davies said. “How can we settle the matter? For several decades astronomers have been sweeping the skies with radio telescopes hoping to stumble across a message from ET. So far they have been met by an ‘eerie silence.'”
“Meanwhile, astrobiologists have considered how signatures of microbial life might be detectable in the solar system or in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets,” Davies added. “If life really does form readily in Earth-like conditions, it should have started many times right here on Earth, so we should look for a ‘shadow biosphere’ of life, but not as we know it, under our very noses.'”
Davies was the first person to champion the idea that life on Earth may have originated on Mars and transferred here in impact ejecta. He is director of the Beyond Center at ASU that researches how life began in terms of the organization of information in complex networks – “the software of life.” His book The Demon in the Machine, is a daunting look at the power of information to explain the physics of living matter. To bring life within the scope of physical law, he argues, “and to provide a sound basis for the reality of information as a fundamental entity in its own right – requires a radical reappraisal of the nature of physical law.”
Laws of Physics “Life-Blind” or “Bio-Friendly”
“There is no evidence whatever that the known laws of physics are rigged in favor of life,” Davies says, “they are ‘life-blind’. But what about new state-dependent informational laws? My hunch is that they would not be so specific as to foreshadow biology as such, but they might favor a broader class of complex information-managing systems of which life as we know it would be a striking representative.
“It’s an uplifting thought that the laws of the universe might be intrinsically bio-friendly in this general manner. These speculative notions are very far from a miracle-working deity who conjures life into being from dust. But if the emergence of life,” suggests Davies,” and perhaps mind, are etched into the underlying lawfulness of nature, it would bestow upon our existence as living, thinking beings a type of cosmic-level meaning.”
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