In some ways, Demon in the Machine is a follow up to your 1998 book The Fifth Miracle, where you also tackle the origins of life. What has changed since you wrote that book?
The science has changed. I was motivated to write this book, in part because I am now surrounded by some very clever young people who are coming up with all sorts of wonderful ideas, but also because of advances, not only in
biology,but in fundamental physics. The demon in the title of the book is something that’s beloved of all physicists: Maxwell’s demon. It’s the sort of thing you learn, you think, “Hmm, well okay. I understand,” then you move on because it’s been an inconvenient truth at the heart of physics for over 150 years. It’s only just in the last few years that people have actually built devices based on the concept. This is now part of nanotechnology – you can build devices that, in a thermal background, can actually discern individual degrees of freedom and operate mechanisms to convert heat into work or use information as a fuel or a source of energy.
I have to say, it’s on a very small scale. My
favouriteis the information-powered refrigerator, which is being built in Finland. Don’t expect anything from your kitchen appliances soon, but it establishes the principle that to fully understand the nature of thermodynamics, we have to take into account information as a physical quantity, and not just as some sort of airy-fairy concepts that we use in daily life. That really is, I like to say, the chink in the armourof mystery that surrounds the question “what is life?”. I think we begin to see that if information can have causal leverage over matter, then that opens the way to understanding how we might adapt the laws of physics to incorporate this information thing, which is at the heart of what makes life tick. Tushna Commissariat, “Life, the universe and everything: an interview with Paul Davies” at PhysicsWorld
In a world where some believe that consciousness must be a material thing, perhaps it’s not surprising that others seek to see information as a physical quantity. Computer scientist Robert J. Marks would ask, what is the weight difference between a full CD and an empty one? Could we start there?
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See also: Paul Davies: The Really Tough Question Is How Life’s Hardware Can Write Its Own Software
Physicist Rob Sheldon On Paul Davies’ “Life Writes Its Own Software” Claim
Paul Davies And The “Struggle To Define Life”
Paul Davies: Life’s Defining Characteristics “Better Understood As Information”
How can consciousness be a material thing?