From Natalie Wolchover at Quanta:
The biophysicist Jeremy England made waves in 2013 with a new theory that cast the origin of life as an inevitable outcome of thermodynamics. His equations suggested that under certain conditions, groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves so as to burn more and more energy, facilitating the incessant dispersal of energy and the rise of “entropy” or disorder in the universe. England said this restructuring effect, which he calls dissipation-driven adaptation, fosters the growth of complex structures, including living things. The existence of life is no mystery or lucky break, he told Quanta in 2014, but rather follows from general physical principles and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”
Since then, England, a 35-year-old associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been testing aspects of his idea in computer simulations. The two most significant of these studies were published this month — the more striking result in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and the other in Physical Review Letters (PRL). The outcomes of both computer experiments appear to back England’s general thesis about dissipation-driven adaptation, though the implications for real life remain speculative.More.
Science thinkers do not usually pay much attention to speculative implications… what’s different here?
Also from Wolchover at Wired:
“This is obviously a pioneering study,” Michael Lässig, a statistical physicist and quantitative biologist at the University of Cologne in Germany, said of the PNAS paper written by England and an MIT postdoctoral fellow, Jordan Horowitz. It’s “a case study about a given set of rules on a relatively small system, so it’s maybe a bit early to say whether it generalizes,” Lässig said. “But the obvious interest is to ask what this means for life.”
The paper strips away the nitty-gritty details of cells and biology and describes a simpler, simulated system of chemicals in which it is nonetheless possible for exceptional structure to spontaneously arise—the phenomenon that England sees as the driving force behind the origin of life. “That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to acquire that structure,” England explained. The dynamics of the system are too complicated and nonlinear to predict what will happen.
The simulation involved a soup of 25 chemicals that react with one another in myriad ways… More.
We’ve heard this story from Jeremy England before. He has quite a following in the pop science media.
Rob Sheldon, our physics color commentator, writes to say,
After 3 years of recycling Jeremy PR puff-pieces (flannel shirt, unsmiling face, Millennial beard), he has finally published something. To their credit, Wired now finally admits that his stuff was the basis of Ilya Prigogine’s 1979 Nobel prize. But they are wrong to say that England was the first fellow to apply it to OOL, that he was the first to do a simulation. That was the whole point of Prigogine’s research. That was the whole reason he got a Nobel prize. That was why Santa Fe institute spent the next 30 years doing non-equilibrium stat mech.
The puffing hasn’t stopped, and I don’t think it has much to do with Jeremy. It has to do with the desperation of the whole OOL community. It seems they are recycling ideas and have to repackage them in an appealing wrapper, and England appears to be that wrapper. (Why didn’t Carl Sagan’s son, Dorion, get that job for his 2005 book “Into the Cool: energy flow, thermodynamics and life”? Were OOL researchers not so desperate then?) Here’s my own PPT talk on the topic from 2006.
The only honest person in that Wired piece was the Harvard chemist, Eugene I. Shakhnovich, who said “Any claims that it has to do with biology or the origins of life, he added, are “pure and shameless speculations.”
Well, this is the time of year when hot weather stories sprout like beans.
A question remains: If order can arise from nothing why do we not see it happening around us? Why does spontaneous generation not work?
I once heard a Darwinian explain that the reason life does not arise spontaneously now is that existing life stamps it out; thus it never survives. But I trip over the little word “never.” A parsimonious thinker, faced with “never”, might better assume that the event just can’t happen in the way proposed. Rather than that it really is happening but is always stopped.
On the same principle that if we never see fairies, we might better assume that they don’t exist than that they are always snatched away at the last minute.
What Prigogine said (and many have repeated), is that for systems that have energy flow through them—think of a pot of water boiling on the stove—the system finds a structure that moves the most amount of heat and entropy the fastest. In the case of the pot, it is convection cells that form spontaneously.
Is this order?
Of a sort–the sort that maximizes disorder. It’s called the Maximum Entropy Production Principle. The “structure” that has England all excited, spontaneously forms to make things disorganized really fast. It’s what designs tornadoes, hurricanes, and mushroom clouds. This is not particularly useful for life, despite many hopeful scientists.
See also: This just in: Physicist solves meaning of life… again (Jeremy England)
Math vs. Darwinian evolution
What we know and don’t know about the origin of life