Sign up FAST! Login

A New Thermodynamics Theory of the Origin of Life as an Inevitable Consequence of Light, by Jeremy England of MIT

Stashed in: Best PandaWhale Posts, Science!, Life, Light, Awesome, Meaning of Life, Consequences, Plants!, The Internet is my religion., MIT TR, Science Too, Physics, SETI, Extraordinary People, Life finds a way., Darwin

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

The origin of life, according to this physicist, is as "unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill" due to the physics of carbon atoms.

Fascinating. If I understand this correctly, life is an inevitable consequence of light.

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.”

Plagiomnium affine

Cells from the moss Plagiomnium affine with visible chloroplasts, organelles that conduct photosynthesis by capturing sunlight.

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.

Very intriguing.  While it sounds plausible from the physics, it seems to gloss over the information-creation aspect needed to get from an atom-based physical system to a DNA-based biological system.  There's a heckuva lot of bits that need to be created to describe life programmatically.  The physical system may "want" it, but how does the biology get it?

Through many iterations of trial and error until something sticks?

I mean, after eons it seems like the DNA equivalent of millions of monkeys at keyboards typing randomly.

Eventually, one is going to produce Hamlet.

Creationists are increasingly unhappy with this new theory of life as a natural consequence of light:

Life is inevitable.

It doesn’t mean we should expect life everywhere in the universe — lack of a decent atmosphere or being too far from the sun still makes most of our solar system inhospitable for life with or without England’s perspective. But it does mean that “under certain conditions” where life is possible — as it is here on Earth, obviously — it is also quite probable, if not, ultimately, inevitable. Indeed, life on Earth could well have developed multiple times independently of each other, or all at once, or both. The first truly living organism could have had hundreds, perhaps thousands of siblings, all born not from a single physical parent, but from a physical system, literally pregnant with the possibility of producing life. And similar multiple births of life could have happened repeatedly at different points in time.

That also means that Earth-like planets circling other suns would have a much higher likelihood of carrying life as well. We’re fortunate to have substantial oceans as well as an atmosphere — the heat baths referred to above — but England’s theory suggests we could get life with just one of them — and even with much smaller versions, given enough time. Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600, was perhaps the first to take Copernicanism to its logical extension, speculating that stars were other suns, circled by other worlds, populated by beings like ourselves. His extreme minority view in his own time now looks better than ever, thanks to England.

If England’s theory works out, it will obviously be an epochal scientific advance. But on a lighter note, it will also be a fitting rebuke to pseudo-scientific creationists, who have long mistakenly claimed that thermodynamics disproves evolution (here, for example), the exact opposite of what England’s work is designed to show — that thermodynamics drivesevolution, starting even before life itself first appears, with a physics-based logic that applies equally to living and non-living matter.

On life needing liquid water and heat and the Miller–Urey experiment creating complex molecule soup:

You May Also Like: