From big think:
MIT Physicist Proposes New “Meaning of Life”
MIT physicist Jeremy England claims that life may not be so mysterious after all, despite the fact it is apparently derived from non-living matter. In a new paper, England explains how simple physical laws make complex life more likely than not. In other words, it would be more surprising to find no life in the universe than a buzzing place like planet Earth.
Excuse me, but we currently have a sample size of 1.
What does all matter—rocks, plants, animals, and humans—have in common? We all absorb and dissipate energy. While a rock absorbs a small amount of energy before releasing what it doesn’t use back into the universe, life takes in more energy and releases less. This makes life better at redistributing energy, and the process of converting and dissipating energy is simply a fundamental characteristic of the universe.
The strength of England’s theory is that it provides an underlying physical basis for Darwin’s theory of evolution and helps explain some evolutionary tendencies that evolution cannot. Adaptations that don’t clearly benefit a species in terms of survivability can be explained thusly: “the reason that an organism shows characteristic X rather than Y may not be because X is more fit than Y, but because physical constraints make it easier for X to evolve than for Y to evolve.” More.
So there is no current underlying physical basis for Darwin’s theory? As in natural selection as the single greatest idea ever invented? But it has no physical basis?
There seems something almost corrupt about this kind of thing.* They are trying to get around facing up to something, the enigma of information, for a start.
But, as a writer once put it:
“My name is used-to-was; I am also called played-out and done-to-death, and it-will-wash-no-more.”
We ran into Jeremy England last year:
Does this physicist have a groundbreaking idea about why life exists?
Sure. Why not? There are hundreds of them out there.
Here or below, Jeremy England sees life as a drive to expend more energy.
Friend Mark Fitzmaurice writes,
I just watched this video of his talk. I suggest you do not waste your time on it. I find it hard to believe that people can take this guy seriously. More.
Well, readers can watch his prev talk and decide.
He also claims to have a math formula that explains it all, with Darwinian evolution as a special case.
At the time, physicist Rob Sheldon weighed in on the thesis, on the power of self-promotion:
Ummm, this is more a case of English homonyms than a case of scientific discovery. And in fact, it isn’t at all obvious that life actually wants maximum entropy production. For example, it may take a week for bacteria to munch through all the sugar in the soup, perhaps months to munch through the oil, but it is a matter of seconds to set fire to the oil and sugar once the water is evaporated. To keep that from happening, the bacteria secrete scum and goo to keep the water from evaporating. So life actually tries to avoid catastrophic entropy production and violates MEPP!
But don’t tell them that until after you get them a dictionary.
England is looking for something that doesn’t exist: Life that behaves like rocks. There’s a market for that. There’s a market for lucky rabbits’ feet too.
Sheldon writes today to say,
I don’t know why he keeps getting these puff journo postings–perhaps because he doesn’t have tenure yet. (Forgive me. I’m just an old cynic.) That’s because everything he says is in Ilya Prigogine’s work from the early 70’s. I don’t really understand why it is now being recycled except perhaps as fodder for the “new Darwinian” synthesis we are all holding our breath for. That is to say, if Prigogine’s Nobel Prize really was deserved, we should all be reaping the benefits of non-equilibrium stat mech right now, but apparently it never panned out. So why doesn’t England acknowledge the basis of his work, and demonstrate why it is solving the problem Prigogine didn’t? Something doesn’t add up.
England’s popularity says more about the state of pop science writing than about the state of physics or biology.
Of course, if the “new Darwinian” synthesis ever shows up, we’ll give it some air. Right now, it looks like the New Evolution Synthesis has sailed, and Darwin isn’t on the passenger list.
Maybe he’ll board from the pilot boat, just before the ship heads out into open water… Stay tuned.
See also: What we know about origin of life at your fingertips
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