Sunday, January 26, 2014

#26 / All Just Physics

Jeremy England, a 31-year old physicist at MIT, is advancing a theory that the transformation of inanimate matter into life is all just physics. According to England, the emergence of life is as "unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill." You can read a paper that presents England's theory right here

England's paper is titled "Statistical physics of self-replication." I was introduced to his ideas through a more "popular" version, which appeared on January 22nd in Quanta Magazine. Unless you are a physicist, I suggest you might start with that one. A somewhat patronizing note on the article as published in Quanta claimed that England's ideas were nothing new. In fact, says Karo Michaelian, "I wrote all about it in 2009."

Whoever gets the credit, I guess this is a theory to which we ought to pay attention. The Quanta article quoted Professor Carl Franck to the effect that England's ideas have made Dr. Franck "think that the distinction between living and nonliving matter is not sharp.”

To the non-physicist eye (I am putting myself in that category, of course), the difference between living and nonliving matter actually does appear rather distinct. I also may be unfairly skeptical when I ponder why all sorts of living beings of different kinds aren't popping up everywhere, as we point our telescopes around the universe. You would think that we might see more evidence of living matter showing up, if the emergence of life is really as predictable as "rocks rolling downhill."

At any rate, as you can tell, I am somewhat skeptical about the idea that life is all just physics, and that life emerges automatically, given certain base conditions. I must admit, though, that my major concern at the moment, as I consider the state of the world, is not really how non-living matter might "self-replicate" itself into living matter. My concern is more whether we human beings, leading examples in the world of "living matter," might be close to turning all or most of the "living matter" in the world (including ourselves) back into "nonliving matter."

Just saying. I think that is a possibility that we ought to take seriously!

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  1. Sounds like you don't understand how SETI works. Living beings don't just pop up everywhere you point a telescope.

    To discover life outside our solar system, you would look for giveaway signs, like an oxygen atmosphere. The Terrestrial Planet Finder is designed with precision enough to identify oxygen in the atmosphere of extra-solar planets. Too bad it was cancelled in 2011.

    To discover intelligent life, SETI examines the radio spectrum of nearby stars, looking for a tuned signal. Both the parametric and physical spaces are huge. It's like hunting for buried treasure on a beach without a metal detector. It takes time and patience.

  2. By the way, Michaelian did NOT say England's ideas were nothing new!

    He said this general theory for the origin and evolution of life was nothing new. He's right. It isn't.

    Natalie Wolchover, author of the Quanta Magazine article, misrepresented England's work by calling it a new theory.

    What England contributes is a mathematical constraint on self-replication from non-equilibrium statistical mechanics.


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