27 December 2014

Quanta Magazine: “A New Thermodynamics Theory of the Origin of Life”

Wilson Bentley

If a new theory is correct, the same physics it identifies as responsible for the origin of living things could explain the formation of many other patterned structures in nature. Snowflakes, sand dunes and self-replicating vortices in the protoplanetary disk may all be examples of dissipation-driven adaptation.

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.

Natalie Wolchover

In other words, life as direct consequence of one of the fundamental laws of physics! If this theory is validated, it could drastically improve the likelihood of finding life on other planets, maybe even inside our own solar system, on Europa or Titan.

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