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A Thermodynamics Theory of the Origins of Life

Soulskill posted about 8 months ago | from the everything's-inevitable dept.

185

New submitter SpankiMonki writes "Natalie Wolchover at Quanta Magazine has written an article about how Jeremy England, a MIT professor, may have found a theory of the origin of life grounded in physics. In a paper published last August by The Journal of Chemical Physics, England describes his theory, the 'Statistical physics of self-replication.' Wolchover writes, 'England['s]...formula...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.' England says his ideas pose no threat to Darwinian evolution: 'On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.'"

cancel ×

So more enthalpy=more life? (0, Troll)

i kan reed (749298) | about 8 months ago | (#46056897)

We have Mercury and Venus as counter-examples. Why aren't they teeming with even more life.

I mean, I like the neat simplicity of the idea, but the "habitable zone + Miller Urey" is a more plausible theory.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (4, Interesting)

RaceProUK (1137575) | about 8 months ago | (#46056975)

Mercury has no ocean or atmosphere to act as a heat bath, so there goes one counter-example. And while Venus has a thick atmosphere, it doesn't necessarily have the right chemicals for life to arise, so there goes your second counter-example.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1, Informative)

i kan reed (749298) | about 8 months ago | (#46057501)

Which is why I said "habitable zone + Miller Urey" is more plausible.

And what "chemicals" do you think venus lacks that early earth didn't? I mean, it's not like carbon dioxide and nitrogen aren't present here.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

RaceProUK (1137575) | about 8 months ago | (#46058537)

And what "chemicals" do you think venus lacks that early earth didn't?

Chemically chemicals? Anyway, whether Venus does have the right stuff or not is irrelevant - it's still not a counter-example.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

JoeMerchant (803320) | about 8 months ago | (#46057511)

For all we know about Venus, it could be a soup of unfamiliar life... taking this new perspective on life and sending a scientific lander to Venus to search might be a worthwhile annual expenditure of \$0.25 per capita for the next 5 years.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

RaceProUK (1137575) | about 8 months ago | (#46058549)

For all we know about Venus, it could be a soup of unfamiliar life

Absolutely, though what form that would take...

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46058937)

For all we know about Venus, it could be a soup of unfamiliar life

Absolutely, though what form that would take...

I heard Venusians have two mouths. Lots of double talk.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46058795)

Yes, this. Althought it'd be necessary to build something better structured for pressure than the last one - it really didn't do well in the extreme heat and pressure of Venus' atmosphere and failed well before it reached any sort of surface.

I'd love to see what the surface of Venus looks like.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 8 months ago | (#46058885)

>I'd love to see what the surface of Venus looks like.
http://www.space.com/18551-ven... [space.com]

We've had I think several probes that got deep enough to photograph the surface, even if they didn't last long.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (4, Interesting)

Immerman (2627577) | about 8 months ago | (#46059065)

The problem is how would you *detect* unfamiliar life? It's not like it gives off life-onium rays. You can detect particular chemicals you believe are produced by certain kinds of life, but that's a pretty narrow detection window. The best bet would probably be collecting samples and monitoring them for long periods under a powerful microscope looking for activity or complex organized structures, but even that would presume that the local life is active or organized in away we can see and understand. A simple crystalline life form for example might well appear like nothing more than a grain of sand on human timescales. Hell, aside from their propensity to arise spontaneously you could almost classify fire and crystals as life forms already - they "eat", they grow, they reproduce, fire even excretes, and crystals manage the organized self-replication with errors. If the errors were cumulative instead of structural they would be evolving already.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (2)

psithurism (1642461) | about 8 months ago | (#46059793)

Well, your right; most of the population will settle for nothing less than little green men with anal probes, flying saucers and prescient, liberal advice for our species (Venusians would be all about the greenhouse effect).

I for one, would be fascinated to find Venus teaming with wacky crystal structures that display just the right amount of entropic dissipation to give physicists hardons.

Unless someone can prove how intelligent life arises inevitably (and given Earth's long history without anything most of us would find intelligent) I suspect we'll never find anything worth communicating with, which I think is what I think most layman actually mean when they say "life."

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

JoeMerchant (803320) | about 8 months ago | (#46059905)

Besides the obvious technical hurdles, I think this (little green men to do charades with) is what people are really interested in.

They certainly don't want to hear that Venus has vast oceans full of self-replicating life forms that could, if they got into the Earth's mantle, trigger a massive increase in super-volcano activity. That's just a downer and not worth funding at all. That one Russian lander that melted after a few minutes was plenty to prove that any people walking around on Venus won't be able to sit at a table and chat with us.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 8 months ago | (#46060349)

Dude, must you be such a downer? Charades via teleconferencing is admittedly less entertaining, but who would want to actually travel to such a miserably cold world as Earth? :-)

As for the supervolcano "bugs", well, I would certainly hope we discover such things *before* bringing back samples to study...

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46060121)

Well, your right; most of the population will settle for nothing less than little green men with anal probes, flying saucers and prescient, liberal advice for our species (Venusians would be all about the greenhouse effect).

Well, with the lack of those.... maybe some tentacles in store?

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 8 months ago | (#46060295)

Hell yeah the Venusians would be all about the greenhouse effect, look at how cold and lifeless our world is! They've probably already infiltrated the government and fossil fuel industry as part of their terraforming project. Why waste all that energy on invasion and terraforming when you can just give the locals the internal combustion engine and let them terraform themselves out of existence? };-)

>given Earth's long history without anything most of us would find intelligent
There's another big unsubstantiated claim in it's own right - intelligent life could have arisen several times here already, how would we know? If we wipe ourselves out tomorrow then in a million years there'll be precious little evidence that we ever existed as an intelligent race, if we hadn't made it through the last ice age (genetic evidence suggests only about 2000 of us did) then the evidence of our existence would already be almost gone - when some future archaeologist finds a stone tool who would suspect that it originated with a completely different species rather than their own stone-age ancestors? Even stone sculptures of humans would likely be dismissed as representations of some primitive god. Me, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if we start colonizing the Moon and discover ancient traces of one or more previous technological races, preserved by the lack of life, weather, and geologic activity.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (3)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about 8 months ago | (#46057673)

Mercury has no ocean or atmosphere to act as a heat bath, so there goes one counter-example. And while Venus has a thick atmosphere, it doesn't necessarily have the right chemicals for life to arise, so there goes your second counter-example.

From TFS:

'England['s]...formula...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.'

Where do you see the word "chemicals?"

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 8 months ago | (#46058129)

Without chemicals, life would not be possible(TM)

(TM) Dupont

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

SplawnDarts (1405209) | about 8 months ago | (#46058133)

You must be those guys who label organic food with "contains no chemicals" and similar nonsense.

Here's a hint: a "group of atoms" difinitively implies one or more chemicals.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (2)

qubex (206736) | about 8 months ago | (#46058383)

Clearly the original poster intended to signify a to-be-defined set of “usable” chemicals. It is clear to everybody versed in even rudimentary chemistry that a concentration of noble gasses would not give rise to life for the simple reason that though concentrated they do not react. Thus the expected reactivity of the chemicals under consideration becomes a key concern. The building blocks of life as we know it (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, & cetera) is a pretty reactive bunch of stuff.

I expect professor English has already formalised this (fairly trivial) observation in his work. If that is not the case, it could no doubt be effortlessly included. I do not believe it to be a profound point. I especially resist the tendency Slashdot users often display of building straw-men absurd logical reductions.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (3, Insightful)

Immerman (2627577) | about 8 months ago | (#46059171)

>It is clear to everybody versed in even rudimentary chemistry that a concentration of noble gasses would not give rise to life

That depends entirely on the environment - at sufficient temperatures and pressures the noble gasses become quite active. In fact they might be some of the few elements still non-volatile enough to build a stable chemistry around.

Yeah, chemistry is weird - it's built directly upon quantum mechanics after all. And we're only beginning to understand how extremely biased our understanding is towards "chemistry that can occur at STP".

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46058345)

I don't see the word chemicals, but I see "under certain conditions", for the connection to life. The more general claim that energy gets dissipated more efficiently in certain systems doesn't imply that every such system will produce life. In some cases it could be some small, fractional change to reaction rates and mineral compositions when the only options are rather boring chemical reactions. While there might be some shift in how reaction rates go, if there is not a more complex place for them to go, like organic chemistry, than you aren't going to magically get life anyway.

For a car analogy, it is like talking about removing the catalytic converter to get more horsepower. In almost all cases you'll get more power removing it, but in many of those cases it will be quite insignificant. You won't suddenly turn a sub-100 hp engine into a 1000 hp racing engine. Although in some specific situations, where the converter was specified to be too small in the original design, or you made substantial other changes such that it represents a serious restriction on the exhaust, removing it could make a large difference.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 8 months ago | (#46059261)

I think a more telling point is that any catalyst that dissipates energy more efficiently than "dumb chemistry" will be primed to explode across it's environment if it's capable of self-replication. And it's damnably hard to draw a line between self-replicating chemistry and life.

To use your car analogy, you don't need 1000hp to pull ahead in a drag race against someone with a 100hp car, 100.1hp will be enough in the long term.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Nemyst (1383049) | about 8 months ago | (#46058763)

And right below, you have this: "[..]from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon."

In other words, Venus might see this phenomenon arise, but just not the particular specific case where life gets involved (ie. the wrong atoms are present or the wrong process is started or whatever else can affect the outcome).

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

DrElJeffe (741629) | about 8 months ago | (#46059825)

By heat bath, they do not necessarily mean "hot". The *difference* in temperature matters. The system (life) has to dump heat (delta-Q) into its surroundings (atmosphere, bath, etc) for replication to be favorable. The system usually has to be hotter than the surroundings for the heat (Q) to flow from the system into the surroundings. An engine is more efficient on colder days than hotter days. The system *can* absorb heat from the surroundings, but this is usually accompanied by an increase in disorder of the system.
So, Venus is just too darn hot to act as an efficient head dump for the negative delta-G's of carbon-based biochemistry.
Good old \delta G_sys = \delta H_sys - T \delta S_sys
[That said, I think that the paper is defining delta Q backwards (+ Q flowing out of system) from the usual convention (+ Q flowing into the system).]

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057021)

Depends on the definition of "life" at that point. Mercury should have lots of crystallization effects which release energy during formation... But the excess heat would also remelt... And crystals do "grow"... And they can even reproduce (by fission when the crystal fractures...)

In the case of Venus - insufficient information for a meaningful answer...

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057091)

Well, the only thing we're really certain about Venus is that the Russian lander dissolved, after getting some odd footage of either shifting objects (which might've fallen off the lander and dissolved) or artifacts from lens damage. While our complex carbohydrated life would not survive on the Venusian surface, the potential existence of even more acidic life that could survive there is pretty hard to disprove.

Maybe we should make a copy of the Mars rovers out of cronifer [sulphuric-acid.com] and do a retest.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (4, Interesting)

RichMan (8097) | about 8 months ago | (#46057117)

I think this is specifically water based, or at least where things can be water like.
With water you get a scum boundary. Thermically there will be pressure to move the heat through the scum boundary. Which will generally be less thermally conductive. This will promote chemical processes that move the heat through the boundary.

The scum boundary becomes cell membranes and the chemical processes then become cellular mechnisims that seek their own energy input (feed on available chemically stored energy).

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057133)

There is such a thing as "too much of a good thing."

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Charliemopps (1157495) | about 8 months ago | (#46057169)

And we've thoroughly explored those planets? I, personally, have no doubt we will eventually find some form of life on both planets. Obvious surface life seems to be unique to earth in our solar system... but even on earth, subsurface life far out numbers its terrestrial counterparts. Mercuries surface does not appear to be "Teeming with life" but that doesn't mean the subsurface isn't And Venus... well we can't see a damned thing there now can we? I don't see how that's a counter example to anything.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

The Cat (19816) | about 8 months ago | (#46058831)

We can't see anything on Venus?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]

Shit and I'm not even a scientist. I have a (GASP) liberal arts degree.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46059653)

Shit and I'm not even a scientist.

And by posting idiocy like that, you're obviously planning to stay a shitty non-scientist.

Sure thing, bub (1)

nobuddy (952985) | about 8 months ago | (#46059881)

And dropping a probe in the Sahara for an hour would determine there is no life on Earth either.

We know next to nothing about venus. That data- rather than enlighten us, merely highlights how little we know.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

TrollstonButterbeans (2914995) | about 8 months ago | (#46057191)

"We have Mercury and Venus as counter-examples. Why aren't they teeming with even more life."

Liquids only exist with the right pressure and temperature (CO2 never goes liquid but sublimates with our atmospheric pressure) --- and liquids will likely be discovered to be the "key". Asteroids, gas giants and --- say --- the moon don't have liquids.

Liquids are a special case of matter interactivity.

So I guess what the author is implying: liquids + energy tend to lead to more efficient molecules that dissipate heat which cycles and eventually leads to life. It is intriguing thought, but needs more evidence.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Bengie (1121981) | about 8 months ago | (#46058811)

You could say that life is only a more efficient given certain pressures and temperatures. By definition, conditions that are favorable for life are favorable because life is a more efficient way to increase entropy in those conditions.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (2)

Guido von Guido II (2712421) | about 8 months ago | (#46057215)

Even if there's some truth behind the theory in the article, I'd still expect there to be a range of conditions under which life would be possible. Venus is probably out of it. While it seems unlikely that there's life on Venus now, it's still possible that there was life on Venus earlier in its history when (and if) the conditions were less extreme. (Although I can't imagine that anybody would be able to get any evidence for it, if it did exist.)

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

bob_super (3391281) | about 8 months ago | (#46059017)

There might be life on/in Venus. Just not apparently the water/carbon based life that we're so egocentrically looking for.
It's hard to imagine other forms of life and go expensively looking for them on a hunch that they may exist. That doesn't mean they don't.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (2)

Immerman (2627577) | about 8 months ago | (#46059579)

Define life. Fire and crystals are extremely close by many definitions. Viruses are borderline, being clearly life by some and clearly non-life by others - they do not eat, excrete, respire, or even self-replicate by themselves, instead relying on subverting the self-replication capacity of other life to do so.

If you go by the increasingly popular definition of life as "capable of imperfect self-replication", which is necessary and sufficient for evolution to kick in, then crystals and fire are extremely primitive forms of life - fire's self-replication is too unstable for evolution to accumulate complex functionality, and crystals are generally far too stable and self-correcting. Both death-knells for productive evolution.

But hey, they perform abiogenesis at the drop of a hat, so who knows what might exist out in the cosmos. On Mercury or Venus for example the high temperatures might well make many crystals unstable enough that they become capable of evolution. A little alloy contamination here, a little structural reinforcement there, and suddenly the crystal can survive environmental fluctuations, but is no longer capable of perfect self-replication, and voila, evolution is off to the races.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057225)

These theories are not in opposition. England's theory explains how Urey's experiment works.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

jandersen (462034) | about 8 months ago | (#46057281)

Why aren't they teeming with even more life.

Do you know they don't? What prof. England does is to some extent to state the obvious: When you have a collection of elements (eg. atoms) that are able to combine to form larger elements (eg. molecules), and you bring about a situation where more 'atoms' can combine, then evolution is likely to happen - some molecules will be more stable than others, so we get 'survival of the fittest'. You could even do this with, say Lego blocks: put them in a large, rotating drum for a while, and they will probably clump together randomly - and the combinations that are not stable enough will break apart.

It may well be meaningful to define 'life' as this exact phenomenon, in which case life really is everywehere, and it is only a question of determining how complex life can become in a given environment.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 8 months ago | (#46059667)

You left out self-replication. Survival of the fittest is an evolutionary concept and only applies to that big drum of Lego blocks if you get clumps of blocks capable of promoting the formation of similar clumps of blocks. At that point evolution can kick in, otherwise you just have a bunch of tumbling "rocks" that resist "weathering".

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057399)

Mercury and Venus's Proximity to the source of energy is about the threshold for these processes. This is shown in chemistry where electrons at higher states of energy produce different results. Does this mean that the other planets are devoid of some form of life? I would say it's still possible for a form of sustaining organism thriving on one or both. The main topic here centers around the carbon based organisms we have become accustomed to. Our cellular form happens to work at earth friendly temperatures.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about 8 months ago | (#46059833)

>The main topic here centers around the carbon based organisms we have become accustomed to.

I didn't see any such limitation implied, though carbon based life is used as a proof-of-concept example. I could easily envision a hot world where some sort of crystals melt and reform on a daily or seasonal basis - any inclusions that allow them to dissipate energy more efficiently and avoid melting would be step one, if they can promote the accumulation of such inclusions in new growth you've got step two, and if the new growth is anything less than a perfect copy of the original then you've primed the pump for evolution and are off to the races.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (2)

PPH (736903) | about 8 months ago | (#46057529)

Possibly because the 'heat bath' description is somewhat simplistic. The earth has environments where organisms, or more simply clumps of molecules can lose energy locally. You have a dark surface that absorbs sunlight more effectively than the puddle of water you reside in and you lose energy to that puddle.

The environments of Mercury and Venus lack temperature differentials that would drive such a process.

Re:So more enthalpy=more life? (2)

rgbatduke (1231380) | about 8 months ago | (#46058361)

The theory doesn't insist on life -- it simply further develops a principle that actually goes back IIRC to work by Prigogene on self-organization in open system (although I'm too lazy to look it up to be certain) and that is observed in phenomena like the transition from conduction to turbulent convection. The interesting thing is extending it to the microscale and chemistry.

Also, what's wrong with the "and" operator here, as well? Given a temperature range and physical environment conducive of complex chemistry between free energy sources and free energy sinks, self-organization of the chemistry to optimize the generation of entropy, via a natural selection favoring those processes that are most efficient at transferring the energy from a rate limited source AND that possess a certain "stability" in the physical environment. Self-replicating processes might not always be the most efficient, even, but they might possess the stability needed, or not. Once you have the self-replication, though, you have a pathway to life. Urey-Miller isn't even contradictory of this -- the nucleation of the self-replicating processes itself likely requires random noise to generate the soup in which the requisite self-organizing chemistry can take place.

rgb

Of-course no 'threat' to evolution (2, Insightful)

roman_mir (125474) | about 8 months ago | (#46056919)

Obviously this does not threaten the evolution in any way, why would it? Why is that sentence in there in the first place?

Evolution of species vs. how physical structures may create patterns that allow it to maintain lowest energy state..... I don't understand the confusion of ideas that may lead somebody to believe there is some conflict there in the first place.

Re:Of-course no 'threat' to evolution (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057009)

Because everybody is either democrat or republican, black or white, american or terrorist...

Re:Of-course no 'threat' to evolution (1)

gishzida (591028) | about 8 months ago | (#46057259)

Because everybody is either democrat or republican, black or white, american or terrorist...

You forgot a few:

everyone believes in:
"Science" and his prophet Darwin or "God" and his prophet [fill in religious leader],
reason or emotion ,
starched or tie-died,
rational or magical,
whistle-blowers or politicians,
capitalist or communists.
Christian nation or Deist nation,
Monotheist or Trinitarian,
Libertarian or Rational,
Successful or Failed
talent or no talent,
monochrome or multichrome.

See? Fixed that for ya!

Cool! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46056933)

This is really cool, and rather natural. Why would biological evolution be so special?
I bet, that in future research, we can find many other conditions, that, under the right circumstances and enoguh time, also behaves like an evolutionary system.

Not new (4, Informative)

parallel_prankster (1455313) | about 8 months ago | (#46056943)

Can anyone with more info on this tell me how this earlier paper is different - arxiv.org/abs/0907.0042

Re:Not new (1)

parallel_prankster (1455313) | about 8 months ago | (#46056963)

This person Karo Michaelian has been screaming on the comments of the linked article that this research is not new apparently.

Re:Not new (5, Informative)

schneidafunk (795759) | about 8 months ago | (#46057183)

For those too lazy to RTFA and comment section,
Karo Michaelian says:
January 22, 2014 at 3:52 pm

The theory for the origin and evolution of life as presented above and accredited to Jeremy England is not new. It was published by myself in 2009, K. Michaelian, arXiv:0907.0042 [physics.gen-ph] http://arxiv.org/abs/0907.0042 [arxiv.org] and again in 2011, K. Michaelian Earth Syst. Dynam., 2, 37-51, 2011 http://www.earth-syst-dynam.ne... [earth-syst-dynam.net] The observation that under a generalized chemical potential material self-organizes into systems which augment the dissipation of that potential should be accredited to Ilya Prigogine, “Introduction to Thermodynamics of Irreversible Processes”, John Wiley Sons Inc., 1968. I have written a number of other papers on the thermodynamic dissipation theory for the origin of life, including an explanation of homochirality. These papers are freely available by searching for my name “Karo Michaelian” on ResearchGate. I welcome Jeremy’s contribution to the effort to understand life from a thermodynamic perspective.

Re:Not new (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057313)

And thus Michaelian falls victim to Stigler's Law [wikipedia.org] .

Re:Not new (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46058365)

2009?

How about the 1987 work of my personal friend, Jeffrey Wicken? see http://www.eoht.info/page/Jeffrey+Wicken

Even that article says it extends the Brooks-Wiley theory formalized earlier in that same decade.

--- trailbarge

Re:Not new (1)

Mryll (48745) | about 8 months ago | (#46060259)

Indeed Prigogine had a key early view. I found the notion that systems organize to minimize the rate of entropy production to be fascinating, as well as the result that the fundamental transport equations can be derived from this thermodynamic basis. I had the pleasure of meeting him briefly before his death.

Re:Not new (1)

Mryll (48745) | about 8 months ago | (#46060313)

Some of his work in the area was published as early as the 1950s IIRC

Re:Not new (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057113)

Because MIT outranks the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where ever the hell that's supposed to be. Duh.

Biological symmetry has a thermodynamic origin too (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057203)

Can't comment on that paper but if this subject interest you check out this highly readable paper on the evolution of symmetry in biological molecules.
http://www.pnas.org/content/ea... [pnas.org]

Re:Not new (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46058241)

Why do slashdotters act so elite that they can brush off articles that they know all about; but everyone else doesn't and thinks the article is cool.
And why the heck is this marked Informative?? This comment is the opposite of informative.

Re:Not new (1)

AstroMatt (1594081) | about 8 months ago | (#46058973)

No kidding - I had this idea 30+ years ago in grad school while waiting to fall asleep for the night. Fantastic idea and I knew on the spot it to be true that the second law of thermodynamics *drives* evolution. Figured it wasn't new, but was still happy that I thought of it, and next day checked the library - yep it wasn't a new idea even 30 years ago ...

Re:Not new (1)

AstroMatt (1594081) | about 8 months ago | (#46059063)

Entropy is the log of the number of available states. If you start with large N atoms, you have a huge, but calculable entropy. If you now let the atoms form molecules, the entropy of the system goes up, even though a molecule is more complex than single atoms. The energy from the sun provides heat that moves stuff around and close enough for bonding (and sometimes splitting those bonds). Eventually, you fill up the statistical distribution of allowed states (chem compounds, complex organic molecules, etc.). All the while the entropy of the entire system is increasing. It's very simple. Second law of thermodynamics drives at least basic evolution towards complexity within pockets of a system.

so (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46056973)

“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.

In other words....
“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if a SUPREME BEING shines his light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

Re:so (1)

RaceProUK (1137575) | about 8 months ago | (#46057003)

Well, the Egyptians believed the Sun was a god. Then sometime later someone worked out it's actually a massive glowing ball of hydrogen and helium.

Re:so (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057251)

And now science has come full circle and once again believes the sun is god.

Re:so (1)

PPH (736903) | about 8 months ago | (#46057577)

long enough

Six days, according to scripture. So this should be a simple experiment to replicate. No successful results yet? So much for that theory.

Re:so (2)

somepunk (720296) | about 8 months ago | (#46057711)

his light? But the Cosmic Mother was female, everybody knows that!

Re: (1)

davide marney (231845) | about 8 months ago | (#46058359)

Personally, I think there must be some form of self-organization at work. The problem with Darwinian evolution is that it is based on selection of attributes that randomly arise over time. As a theory to explain the system-of-systems we see all around us, that is an awfully thin basis. One has to presume that merely by chance some beneficial attribute arises that just happens to be useful in surviving some random environmental chance. You start adding up all the chances of chances, and pretty soon life looks literally impossible.

But what if there is some undiscovered mechanism of self-organization that is self-directing the adaptation of life? Something inherent in the nature of the structure of matter itself. Why DO plants all grow towards the sun? Maybe it's not because it has anything to do with reproduction, but because that's what the stuff that plants are made of self-organize to do, naturally.

Anyway, just a thought.

Re: (1)

MightyMartian (840721) | about 8 months ago | (#46058839)

Plants grow towards the sun because they need sunlight for energy. And evolution is considerably more complex than just "random useful traits".

Better: Quantum Physics Origin of Life (0, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057005)

There's a pretty good theory of the origin of life happening because of quantum physics, in the book, Quantum Evolution. It makes a lot more sense to me than this.

But we don't need a new theory to explain life. (1)

StripedCow (776465) | about 8 months ago | (#46057219)

Because thermodynamics is all about statistics.
This means that even if life-formation goes against the laws of thermodynamics, it still is possible, however remote the probability.

This theory, may, however, be useful in predicting the probability of life forming under certain circumstances.

Re:But we don't need a new theory to explain life. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46058465)

If current theories says something is unlikely, or even when it is incapable of saying how likely, we forever wonder if we missed something and the theory is wrong, or just got really lucky when that something happens. If someone comes up with work showing that current theories say it is actually quite likely, then we know that is not likely to be a fruitful place to look for inconsistencies with current theories.

A crude example would be to consider some event with a couple dozen people attending, and it turns out two of them have the same birthday. Someone might try to argue that this is evidence for some sort of astrology or numerology, because the chances of it happening are too low to assume they happen by chance. But then you point out the birthday paradox, that the chances of that happening are a lot higher than some people assume. Regardless of how true or not their numerological theory was, they can't really point at that coincidence as potential evidence if it is likely to happen even without their theory.

Re:But we don't need a new theory to explain life. (1)

Bengie (1121981) | about 8 months ago | (#46058859)

Thermodynamics does not apply to the micro scale, only macro scale. Given a system that is a subset of a larger system, that smaller system may reduce entropy, as long as the total entropy of the entire system increases. The most efficient way to get rid of excess energy is to reduce entropy in part of the system. When worded a slight different way, the fastest way to increase entropy in a system is to reduce entropy in select parts of that system.

Wow We are Star Stuff (1)

RichMan (8097) | about 8 months ago | (#46057253)

Looking at this macroscopically:

Stars kick out elements and supply enegy which creates compounds. Then life forms just as a method for reducing the enegy captured from the sun and stored in compounds back into lower energy things.

We are the entropic process in action.

Example:
Without us there would be massive amounts of stored enegy in the form of hydrocarbons. We are doing are part in the chain of things by releasing that back as thermal energy.

This even explains the evolution of intelligence as being more efficient at energy consumption.

Texas schools physics textbooks (1)

FriendlyLurker (50431) | about 8 months ago | (#46057255)

Better start rewriting some chapters in those Texas physics textbooks then...

Re:Texas schools physics textbooks (1)

es330td (964170) | about 8 months ago | (#46057449)

You can have our textbooks when you pry them from our cold, dead fingers...

What is Life (4, Interesting)

Yergle143 (848772) | about 8 months ago | (#46057343)

Physicists sometimes have it easy. This kind of thing is akin that old joke about treating a cow like a sphere [wikipedia.org] .
Look with the chemical origin of life, that it was governed by physics [stanford.edu] is not in debate.
What matters are the details, what came first; RNA world, [wikipedia.org] life on a metallic surface, [wikipedia.org] or some thing else? [acs.org]
I have this to toss at so-called astrobiologists who claim that life is spontaneous and easy.
If it is so easy why is there only one kind of life -- 20 amino acids, 4 DNA/RNA bases? To a bio organic chemist the "selection" of this chemical code is arbitrary. [scripps.edu] Why do we not live in an ecosystem with a shadow "alternative" biosphere? After all life existed for 3 billion years on this planet before even becoming multi-cellular. Plenty of time for chemical weirdos to develop a four base genetic code templating for D chirality beta amino acid chains with side chains made of silicon.
Step off physicists, this field belongs to chemists.

Re:What is Life (1)

RaceProUK (1137575) | about 8 months ago | (#46057483)

one kind of life we know of

Re:What is Life (1)

Yergle143 (848772) | about 8 months ago | (#46058349)

Right. Microbiologists see lots of funny things under a microscope. Since the tools used to characterize little creatures make assumptions (DNA specific stains, PCR) who's to say that there is not something we might have missed? I want to do this. But up to now, no organism has been observed to deviate from the main stem (common chemical library) of life.

Re:What is Life (4, Interesting)

Jason Levine (196982) | about 8 months ago | (#46057647)

It could be that life "began" on Earth a few times. Perhaps our form of DNA/RNA wasn't even the first, but was the most successful. This could be because of the general environmental conditions of the time or because our form of DNA/RNA is simply more efficient/reproduces better. In any case, our form of life replicated like crazy and the other forms of life could have been driven back to niches until they died out. Fossils are notoriously tricky when it comes to single-cellular life forms, so perhaps we simply don't have the fossil record to know about this happening. Maybe on another planet, which formed life under different situations, the chemical structure of life is different from the one we are based on.

Re:What is Life (1)

Yergle143 (848772) | about 8 months ago | (#46058485)

This is undoubtedly true and may be the reason there is something completely missing our understanding of primordial biology. I've always wondered why it took so long for macrocellular life to evolve. To me once you've got the something as bewilderingly complex as the ribosome, [wikipedia.org] connecting a glob of cells up to become a tree should be easy, but this isn't the case. 3 billion years to make a tree.
Life appears early, but why not twice?

Re:What is Life (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46058469)

I dont care if its a physicist, chemist, or everyday joe, everybody has their theory on how life started. And its actually easy for anybody since nobody seems to take time to demonstrate it which seems odd since they all agree that its simple natural processes that do it. Although they are thought provoking and entertaining, these theories really have no applicable value except to pass the time.

Wake me up when someone actually PROVES their theory in a lab.

Re:What is Life (1)

c0lo (1497653) | about 8 months ago | (#46060291)

Step off physicists, this field belongs to chemists.

Oh, hey guys [xkcd.com]

Theory of why vs. how (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057499)

In other words, evolution can be considered how we are here whereas thermodynamics can be considered a theory of why we are here. (Paraphrasing religious/scientific dualists)

[nt]

Sig (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057657)

It's a bit hard to take a summary about a complex physics paper seriously, when the submitter goes by the name SpankiMonki...

SMBC got it right (2)

jw3 (99683) | about 8 months ago | (#46057717)

Whenever I hear about a physicist who explains a problem from outside his area of expertise with a few simple equations, I think about this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon: http://www.smbc-comics.com/com... [smbc-comics.com]

Re:SMBC got it right (1)

jfengel (409917) | about 8 months ago | (#46057907)

Or this XKCD:

http://xkcd.com/793/ [xkcd.com]

Really? (1)

Bovius (1243040) | about 8 months ago | (#46057867)

"England says his ideas pose no threat to Darwinian evolution."

Really? This had to be stated?

* Why would this have anything to do with Darwin's theory of evolution? Evolutionary theory is pointedly silent on the origins of life, nor does it depend on a thermodynamic explanation of speciation.
* Why would the article, or England for that matter, feel the need to explicitly state this?

[opinion] I feel like the scientific community has so rabid about avoiding anything resembling creationism that they have to reassure themselves when new ideas come up, even if the ideas are no threat to their core beliefs. [/opinion]

It's disappointing and makes it hard to take anything this guy says seriously, regardless of how reasonable or far fetched his formula is.

The meaning of life? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057901)

So, technically, the meaning of life is to dissipate energy?

Sounds like we do that pretty effectively. We seem to be instinctively driven to consume as much energy as possible in the most efficient way possible.

You F4il It (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057973)

that sorded, mire 07 decay,

That's the Way He Planned It (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46057977)

England says his ideas pose no threat to Darwinian evolution

They shouldn't. After all, that's the way God planned it. That's the way God wants it to be.

De rigeur. (2)

qubex (206736) | about 8 months ago | (#46058087)

In the Journal of Chemical Physics, England describes YOU!

irrelevant (1)

stenvar (2789879) | about 8 months ago | (#46058193)

The paper has nothing to do with "the origin of life". We know that life exists, so proving that it can arise tells us nothing that we don't already know.

What we need to know is how fast it can arise and how likely it is.

Terrence Deacon? (1)

AndyKron (937105) | about 8 months ago | (#46058199)

Isn't this what Terrence Deacon has been saying for a while now?

Theory? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46058289)

It's not a theory, it's a hypothesis.

life is still unusual (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 months ago | (#46058369)

There are plenty of energy-dissipating processes that never seem to evolve. Clouds influence the creation of new clouds, whorls in a stream influence the creation of more whorls in water, but clouds and whorls today aren't any different from what they were billions of years ago.

Life in terms of thermodynamics (1)

32771 (906153) | about 8 months ago | (#46058533)

"At the heart of England’s idea is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of increasing entropy or the “arrow of time.”"

This is great, now somebody can easily go and model the economy thermodynamically. After all this should be a much simpler system.

Then again thinking about the second law feels like you can never come out ahead, introducing this concept to economics would be fatal to certain parts of the finance industry.

makes sense (1)

jafac (1449) | about 8 months ago | (#46059389)

. . . but it sounds like the cart's being put in front of the horse here.

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