Jeremy England, a 31-year-old physicist at MIT, thinks he has found the underlying physics driving the origin and evolution of life.
Quanta editor, Natalie Wolchover, writes:
Why does life exist?
Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”
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.
As a physicist, I’ll point out that an inanimate clump of carbon atoms, known as a lump of coal, is nearly ideal at capturing sunlight 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.Quanta
From one physicist to another, I would like to ask Dr. England to explain the mechanism that can not just cause atoms to dissipate heat, but to use electromagnetic radiation to bring about the fantastically high level of functional organization required for even the simplest living organism. Apart from speculations promoting abiogenesis, claims that a physics formula demonstrates something remarkable typically require mathematical consistency with established laws of physics. One should be able to use the formula to computationally verify the predicted outcome (“a random clump of atoms” turning into a living plant). Localized reductions in entropy do not equate with living organisms. My refrigerator does that, and it’s hardly alive. Can natural forces even produce a refrigerator? Let’s not suggest that localized reductions in entropy amount to solving the origin of life problem. Surely we know better than that.