Origin Of Life Physics

Biophysicist: Order can arise from nothing! I have evidence! – Rob Sheldon replies

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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.

Sheldon adds,

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

and

What we know and don’t know about the origin of life

31 Replies to “Biophysicist: Order can arise from nothing! I have evidence! – Rob Sheldon replies

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    A question remains: If order can arise from nothing why do we not see it happening around us? Why does spontaneous generation not work?

    Spontaneous generation is happening all around us. It’s just that now we call it evolution.

  2. 2
    PaV says:

    First, various quotes from the “Wired” article:

    Rahul Sarpeshkar, a professor of engineering, physics and microbiology at Dartmouth College, said, “It would be nice to have some concrete physical instantiation of these abstract constructs.” He hopes to see the simulations re-created in real experiments, perhaps using biologically relevant chemicals and energy sources such as glucose. . . .

    But even if the fine-tuned fixed points can be observed in settings that are increasingly evocative of life and its putative beginnings, some researchers see England’s overarching thesis as “necessary but not sufficient” to explain life, as Walker put it, because it cannot account for what many see as the true hallmark of biological systems: their information-processing capacity. From simple chemotaxis (the ability of bacteria to move toward nutrient concentrations or away from poisons) to human communication, life-forms take in and respond to information about their environment. . . .

    To Walker’s mind, this distinguishes us from other systems that fall under the umbrella of England’s dissipation-driven adaptation theory, such as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. “That’s a highly non-equilibrium dissipative structure that’s existed for at least 300 years, and it’s quite different from the non-equilibrium dissipative structures that are existing on Earth right now that have been evolving for billions of years,” she said. Understanding what distinguishes life, she added, “requires some explicit notion of information that takes it beyond the non-equilibrium dissipative structures-type process.” In her view, the ability to respond to information is key: “We need chemical reaction networks that can get up and walk away from the environment where they originated.”. . .

    Eugene Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard who supervised England’s undergraduate research, sharply emphasized the divide between his former student’s work and questions in biology. “He started his scientific career in my lab and I really know how capable he is,” Shakhnovich said, but “Jeremy’s work represents potentially interesting exercises in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics of simple abstract systems.” Any claims that it has to do with biology or the origins of life, he added, are “pure and shameless speculations.”. . .

    [England] is rather suggesting that in the tool kit of the first life- or proto-life-forms, “maybe there’s more that you can get for free, and then you can optimize it using the Darwinian mechanism.”

    What England has shown is that ‘electrophoresis’ will work; and that marble will form.

    Can we move on?

  3. 3

    I-N-F-O-R-M-A-T-I-O-N

    🙂

  4. 4

    I don’t see anything in this research where a medium of information is established with its necessary interpretive constraints.

  5. 5
    groovamos says:

    Is it just me or is there something illogical about a thing getting ‘stamped out’ but BTW having never existed so as for sure to get ‘stamped out’?

  6. 6
    rvb8 says:

    Has anyone read the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), and PRL (Physical Review Letters), papers? Is any one here capable of following the maths?

    “Rob Sheldon our physics color commentor writes to say…,
    ‘After three years of recycling Jeremy PR puff pieces..'” (“physics color commenator”? What does this mean?)

    ‘Puff pieces..’?? They were published in PNAS, and PRL, by an MIT physicist, and a grad student.

    Where’s the ‘puff’?

    A ‘puff piece’, would be a Vanity Press book publication, preceeded by a press conferance; sound familiar?

    A ‘puff piece’ may also be earthshaking rebuttal published on web sites, largely US based, that have dreamed of any kind of ‘puff piece’ in such Journals, literaly, for decades.

    In fact on the very rare occasion, (usually editorial screw up), when their work is published in a noted journal, the event is touted by these sites continuously for months, occasionally years on end.

    This PNAS piece is decidedly not ‘puff’.

    ‘”This is obviously a pioneering study”, Michael Lassig, a Statistical Physicist, and Quantitative Biologist at the University of Cologne in Germany said..’ (NEWS, ROB, “Hoisted by your own petard”?)

    “PUFF!?”

    It appears ‘puff’ lacks a mirror.

  7. 7
    Belfast says:

    Rvb8 @ 6
    Small point, but worth correcting. The engineer is NOT hoist BY his petard. He is hoist WITH it.

  8. 8
    groovamos says:

    RVB: It appears ‘puff’ lacks a mirror

    Above contributor: Lacking will to look in the mirror after asserting that all mental illness has organic disease as cause. That after asserting lack of rigor by participants on here.

    Rigor needed here: PTSD is considered mental illness caused by combat. Thus war is a cause of widespread organic brain disease. Including suffered by a tenant of yours truly who, when confronted over bashed-in refrigerator door, claimed it was that way when family moved in.

    That’s right – war caused this man’s organic brain disease, which in turn caused property destruction and his lies about it uttered in front of his children. Rigor needed regarding this.

    Guys: Darwin skeptic James Tour in the news with an innovation by his lab here at Rice U. :
    https://phys.org/news/2017-08-lab-dual-surface-graphene-electrode-hydrogen.html#nRlv

  9. 9
    rvb8 says:

    Belfast @7,

    thanks:)

  10. 10
    ET says:

    rvb8 asked where’s the puff?- That is all your position has as it clearly doesn’t have any science to support its claims. Seversky has already admitted it- science eludes the claims of your position.

  11. 11
    Bob O'H says:

    ET @ 10 (& rvb8 @6) – Puff is probably by the sea, where he lives.

  12. 12
    Mung says:

    > Puff is probably by the sea, where he lives.
    I shall have to replace my usual POOF! with PUFF!

    PUFF! AN EYE!

    Ain’t evolution grand.

  13. 13
    Mung says:

    And Upright BiPed once again exposes how science is thought to “advance” by ignoring the 800 lb gorilla in the room.

  14. 14
    LocalMinimum says:

    So, where does your rare hypothetical chemical hysteresis in your hypothetical chemistry actually intersect with some hypothetical biology?

    This feels like another glimpse at the Oklo “reactor” through a fisheye lens. Yeah, sure, some chemical reactions find potential in the environment that promotes further, even persistent, action. Am I to expect a coastal coal seam fire started by a lightning strike to produce an automatic steam engine manufacturing plant?

  15. 15

    LocalMinimum @ 14: “Am I to expect a coastal coal seam fire started by a lightning strike to produce an automatic steam engine manufacturing plant?”

    Of course not, but the a/mat philosophical belief system (religion?) depends entirely on such things being able to occur. Just one of the reasons I could never be an a/mat. They are much too credulous for me.

  16. 16
    PaV says:

    rvb8:

    Has anyone read the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), and PRL (Physical Review Letters), papers? Is any one here capable of following the maths?

    I read the portions of the PNAS paper I considered pertinent. What is critical are the ideas involved in setting up the simulation. They’re basic chemical reaction equations that are linked together in a complex way.

    What is important is not how the simulation was set up but what the results tell us. They tell us simply that if you apply a chemical potential to a solution that would normally come to equilibrium for a long period of time, then you will end up with a non-equilibrated system. And, further, that certain structures will arise to help ‘dissipate’ this ‘potential.’

    I live by a creek. There are all kinds of rocks there. The creek bed is in equilibrium. But when a huge flow of water comes down, large rocks get swept away, and will so arrange themselves so that the flow of water is maximized.

    You see what I’m getting at?

  17. 17
    bill cole says:

    To Mung’s and UB’s point, will the simulation puff a transcription and translation mechanism into existence along with AA metabolism and DNA. Or will the elephant remain in the room 🙂

  18. 18

    We all know the answer to that question. The major theories on OoL don’t even address the issue. There is little mystery as to why. Howard Pattee answered that question once with both brevity and clarity. He wrote”because it is hard”.

  19. 19
    DATCG says:

    Did Sheldon state the paper in PNAS was a puff piece?

    Maybe he thinks so, but Sheldon stated Wired ran puff-pieces for 3 years…

    “After 3 years of recycling Jeremy PR puff-pieces…, he has finally published something.”

    Who was recycling articles for 3 years? WIRED was.

    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.

    Sheldon is critiquing WIRED’s coverage of past. And highlights previous work for 30 years by Santa Fe Institute on “non-equlibrium stat mech.” His second sentence, “to their credit, WIRED(Quanta link)…” he points to – Prigogine’s ideas and research that led to his Nobel Prize, that WIRED “finally” acknowledges.

    It’s evident Sheldon’s been following this and knows the history.

    As to the paper, I think PaV’s comments, creek analogy and quotes by other scientist in the article and Sheldon show while interesting it’s not all it’s “puffed” up to be – by WIRED.

    Like Sheldon said, it’s not all Jeremy’s fault. WIRED and OOL enthusiast keep the hype going.

    Former supervisor of England’s undergrad research stated clearly…

    Eugene Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard who supervised England’s undergraduate research, sharply emphasized the divide between his former student’s work and questions in biology. “He started his scientific career in my lab and I really know how capable he is,” Shakhnovich said, but “Jeremy’s work represents potentially interesting exercises in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics of simple abstract systems.”

    It represents “potentially interesting exercises…” OK. Fine, but…

    Any claims that it has to do with biology or the origins of life, he added, are “pure and shameless speculations.”

    That’s harsh criticism coming from his former Professor/supervisor. Is he being critical of England or WIRED’s speculations? Not sure, but suspect a question was put forth by WIRED writer on Origin of Life. He responded that it was “pure and shameless speculation” about “any claims… to do with biology or origins of life”

    Whether or not this study is pioneering for OOL research may or may not be accurate in future. It’s a simulation. Simulations often have built-in assumptions. What are the assumptions in this one?

    If assumptions are wrong going in, Then equations or mathematical genius cannot help the outcome except maybe hide flaws of such assumptions. And give added weight to an interesting exercise in futility if assumptions were wrong.

    Are England’s assumptions right or wrong?

    Sarpeshkar seemed to see dissipation-driven adaptation as the opening act of life’s origin story. “What Jeremy is showing is that as long as you can harvest energy from your environment, order will spontaneously arise and self-tune,” he said. Living things have gone on to do a lot more than England and Horowitz’s chemical reaction network does, he noted. “But this is about how did life first arise, perhaps — how do you get order from nothing.”

    Indeed, how do you get order from nothing?

    The first statement is known to anyone in biology or evolutionary sciences, “… that as long as you can harvest energy from your environment.”

    Unable to harvest energy = DOA.

    Sheldon points out Prigogine’s example of a “pot of water boiling.” And convection cells.

    Sheldon ask, “Is that order?”

    He answers,

    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.

    This reminds me how materialist often equate Order as equals from weather systems like a hurricane to the Organization of Life. They’re not equal.

    As shown in Three subsets of sequence complexity and their relevance to biopolymeric information

    There’s a difference between Random, Ordered and Functional Sequence Complexity.

    No empirical evidence exists of either RSC of OSC ever having produced a single instance of sophisticated biological organization. Organization invariably manifests FSC rather than successive random events (RSC) or low-informational self-ordering phenomena (OSC).

    As Sheldon stated, the structure England is excited about “maximizes disorder.” Referencing MEPP.

    Are the assertions about the simulation based upon faulty assumptions? Assumptions required for spontaneous generation from nothing?

    How does the simulation show that faster disorder leads to eventual Organization as in life? Without built-in assumptions?

    Like several scientist said, take it out of abstract and into more real world simulations.

    Jeremy does seem to be puffed up a bit, as he says, “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.”

    It appears the Spontaneous Savior has arisen. Go Jeremy, roll down hill with the rocks 😉 Let us know how that equates to the building of highly specified, tightly controlled, organizational building of life forms.

    Almost every day scientist publish and are surprised at marvels of life, intricate organization and coordination they find within systems biology. Why? Because “perhaps” they realize how difficult it is for life to rise from “nothing.”

    Maybe because life is supported by and arranged by general Design principles, Rules, Laws and Information. Not random, unguided and blind formation.

    Law of Biogenesis still stands. Abstract Simulations to the contrary.

  20. 20
    Dionisio says:

    rvb8 @6:

    “They were published in PNAS, and PRL, by an MIT physicist, and a grad student.”

    Listen buddy, nonsense remains nonsense regardless of who says it. It doesn’t matter how many PhD titles they may have from whatever institution.

    A biochemistry professor from a Canadian university made an embarrassing mistake answering an easy biology question asked by an ignorant nobody here in this website a couple of years ago.

    Ok? Still having problems to get the point?

    Better read carefully DATCG’s insightful commentary @19. If reading DATCG’s comment doesn’t clarify your confusion, then… 🙂

  21. 21
    Dionisio says:

    DATCG @19,

    Very insightful commentary. Thanks.

  22. 22
    Dionisio says:

    We should have more of this kind of exegetical comments like DATCG’s @19.
    Just take any research paper and dissect it to expose its bottom line statements, which in many cases fail to answer the most fundamental question in serious discussions: where’s the beef?

  23. 23
    EugeneS says:

    Biophysicist: Order can arise from nothing! I have evidence!

    Informed Reader: Yawn.

  24. 24
    Axel says:

    Nothing designing and creating everything, makes, ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ seem a brilliant scientific theory, tested many times in all sort of enviroments.

    Though, oddly enough, it could be said of the atheist thought-processes that produced the former. Even more oddly, ‘nothing in, garbage out’ is only marginally more probable* than nothing producing everything.
    * i.e. impossible.

  25. 25
    Mung says:

    Evolution is the fate – the stasis and change – of genetically based information.

    – Eldredge, Niles. Macro-Evolutionary Dynamics. p. 198

    No genetically based information. No evolution. If there’s no evolution, how does it qualify as life?

    800lb gorilla.

  26. 26
    aarceng says:

    “The simulation involved a soup of 25 chemicals ”
    Should be easy enough to confirm experimentally.

  27. 27
    Charles says:

    “If order can arise from nothing why do we not see it happening around us?”

    My mom would say “Charles, get in here and clean up this room!!!”

    I’d tell her, “Mom… be patient. It will get neat and tidy all by itself. Just watch. It’s my science project. No, really. Honest mom. Uuh, mom?”

  28. 28
    Mung says:

    Well Upright BiPed, I hope Elizabeth Liddle is paying attention. She’s one step close to fulfilling her promise.

  29. 29

    Will she ever find her way back from going into hiding, or Neverland, or wherever she is?

  30. 30
    Mung says:

    I think her continued absence from TSZ (her attempt at an alternative to UD) is a complete vindication of Barry’s policies of banning the sort of trash that now calls TSZ home. LoL.

    I’d bet she’s active somewhere though. Just not here. Or TSZ.

    TSZ is down to just two “moderators,” so it’s pretty much open season. What a cesspool. Of course, being Mung, I feel right at home!

    😉

  31. 31

    A week or so ago, Giuseppe likened the Mung twist to an art form. You should probably be able to go wherever you want with reviews like that. 🙂 🙂

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