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A New Physics Theory of Life

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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. 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.

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As far as ideas go this is an old one - I think what he's just done is been a bit more mathematical about it.

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it makes alot of sense tho

an atoms reaction to light and external sources is well known

it should seem as no surprise that as particular atoms begin to bind it becomes more efficient at capturing and releasing energy in a way that could lead to more complex configurations

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it makes alot of sense tho

an atoms reaction to light and external sources is well known

it should seem as no surprise that as particular atoms begin to bind it becomes more efficient at capturing and releasing energy in a way that could lead to more complex configurations

making sense generally is not enough, our senses are pretty limited. I wish I could find his math someplace though.

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I am a bit dubious of whether this theory is useful or not.

It seems to me that this line of thinking - if the theory is correct - could be much more easily applied to explaining amorphous solids and the glass-transition temperature (see the list of unsolved physics problems on the wiki). That would be a very important theoretical finding, and then it might be more plausibly applied to describing the origins of life.

If this theory can't plausibly explain something as conceptually simple as why (for example) a 2:1 mixture of oxygen and silicon tend to form completely random solid phases at room temperature, as well as exist in a wide variety of crystalline polymorphs, then I am doubtful that the theory can be used to explain how a variety of organic elements can combine into proteins and carbohydrates.

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It has long been considered that, with the right conditions and the right 'ingredients', the development of life in an energetic system is inevitable. Does Mr England consider he has developed a formula to represent that inevitability?

However if this...

“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.

...is actually what Mr England said, then I have serious doubts that he has arrived at anything meaningful with his formula. Because the development of life is not a random process.

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As far as ideas go this is an old one - I think what he's just done is been a bit more mathematical about it.

Yeah, I think Aristotle or one of those other Greek guys thought of it first. ;)

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