“At one time,” writes science-fiction author Dennis E. Taylor in We Are Legion (We Are Bob), “we thought that the way life came together was almost completely random, only needing an energy gradient to get going. But as we’ve moved into the information age, we’ve come to realize that life is more about information than energy. Fire has most of the characteristics of life. It eats, it grows, it reproduces. But fire retains no information. It doesn’t learn; it doesn’t adapt. The five millionth fire started by lightning will behave just like the first. But the five hundredth bacterial division will not be like the first one, especially if there is environmental pressure. That’s DNA. And RNA. That’s life.”
Information has the Ability to Animate Matter
Paul Davies, Arizona State University astrophysicist and Director of the Beyond Center, and author of The Demon in the Machine –How Hidden Webs of Information Are Solving the Mystery of Life offers a similar message to Taylor: information, like energy, has the ability to animate matter.
The Primordial Message
“In each and every one of us lies a message,” writes Davies. “It is inscribed in an ancient code, its beginnings lost in the mists of time. Decrypted, the message contains instructions on how to make a human being. Nobody wrote the message; nobody invented the code. They came into existence spontaneously. Their designer was Mother Nature herself, working only within the scope of her immutable laws and capitalizing on the vagaries of chance. The message isn’t written in ink or type, but in atoms, strung together in an elaborately arranged sequence to form DNA, short for deoxyribonucleic acid. It is the most extraordinary molecule on Earth.
The Code Breaker
“What is remarkable is that human beings are actually able to carry out this code-breaking operation, that the human mind has the necessary intellectual equipment for us to “unlock the secrets of nature,” says Davies. ”I cannot believe that our existence in this universe is a mere quirk of fate, an accident of history, an incidental blip in the great cosmic drama. Our involvement is too intimate.”
Life — Next Great Frontier of Physics
Davies has been profoundly influenced by his colleague, astrobiologist and theoretical physicist, Sara Walker, Deputy Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, in his quest seeking a grand unified theory of physics and biology organized around the concept of information. ‘Life is the next great frontier of physics!’ she declares. Her work is focused on whether or not there are ‘laws of life’ – how information structures the physical world that could universally describe life here on Earth and on other worlds.
Ultimate Theory of Life may have a Counterintuitive Foundation
“It could be that whatever theory we uncover to explain life may similarly have a counterintuitive foundation and lead to even more revolutionary ideas about how our universe works—after all, life is far more complex than gravitation,” said Walker. “But right now, we are without theory to guide our search for alien life. Without such a theory, even the 100-year time scale for the gravitational wave discovery may be sorely underestimating how far we are out from discovery of alien life, if it is indeed out there.”
“Until we can capture with our own imagination the breadth and depth of what life is,’ Walker adds. “we will not be moved by claims of its discovery by biosignature indicators that give us no impression of the life that generates them. A discovery that confirms deep theories of what life is will be far more meaningful than announcing we have found a metabolic byproduct. The discovery of alien life is not just about an “aha” moment of finding a signal on a distant world: It is a process of discovering ourselves, and what we are in the cosmic story.”
The Daily Galaxy, Avi Shporer, Research Scientist, MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research via Slate, Dennis Taylor, We Are Legion (We Are Bob) and Paul Davies, The Demon in the Machine. Avi was formerly a NASA Sagan Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
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