Many scientists believe that it is, suggests Paul Davies, theoretical physicist at Arizona State University and director of the Beyond Center, in The Demon in the Machine. Davies suggests that the Great Red Spot is an example of a “dissipative structure” first recognized in the 1970’s by the chemist Ilya Prigogine, who defined life as operating far from equilibrium with its environment and supporting a continued throughput of matter and energy.
“Life is generally very far out of equilibrium”
DNA (originally suggested in a letter to Crick and Watson dated 8 July 1953 by cosmologist, George Gamow, better known for his pioneering work on the Big Bang and discovery of the cosmic microwave background) is an ancient and deeply embedded feature of life on Earth, present in a common ancestor billions of years ago. While other entities such as zircon crystals in Australia and Canada that have been around for over 4 billion years and have survived episodes of subduction into the Earth’s crust, the chief difference, observes Davies, is that a living organism (DNA) is out of equilibrium with its environment. “In fact,” he emphasizes, “life is generally very far out of equilibrium.”
Great Red Spot –A perfect example of a non-living system that is out of equilibrium with its environment
Jupiter’s colossal 350-year old gaseous vortex, the 16,000 kilometers-wide Great Red Spot, says Davies, is a perfect example of a non-living system that is out of equilibrium with its environment and endure over time. Using radio-wavelength data collected by NASA’s Juno mission, researchers have found that signatures of the Great Red Spot persist roughly 300 kilometers deep. The enigmatic object could swallow the Earth whole and still have room for Mars.
To continue to function, Davies explains, an organism (or dissipative structure such as the Great Red Spot) “has to acquire energy from the environment (for example, from sunlight or by eating food) and export something (for example, oxygen or carbon dioxide). There is thus a continuous exchange of energy and material with the surroundings, whereas a crystal is internally inert. When an organism dies, all that activity stops, and it steadily slides into equilibrium as it decays.”
A ‘Dissipative Structure’
Many other examples are known of chemical or physical systems with a similar type of autonomous existence. One of these is convection cells, in which a fluid (for example, liquid water) rises and falls in a systematic pattern when heated from below. Then there are chemical reactions that generate spiral shapes or pulsate rhythmically. Systems like these which display the spontaneous appearance of organized complexity, dubbed ‘dissipative structures’ by Prigogine and represent a sort of way station on the long road to life.
Do these structures, like Jupiter’s enigmatic vortex, represent a first step on the way to life? Some scientists, says Davies, believe they do.
Avi Shporer, Research Scientist, MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research via Paul Davies, The Demon in the Machine (pp. 21-22). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition and Google Talks.
Image credit top of page: NASA Juno Cam