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A Thermodynamics Theory of the Origins of Life 185

Posted by Soulskill
from the everything's-inevitable dept.
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.'"
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A Thermodynamics Theory of the Origins of Life

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  • Not new (Score:5, Informative)

    by parallel_prankster (1455313) on Friday January 24, 2014 @12:04PM (#46056943)
    Can anyone with more info on this tell me how this earlier paper is different - arxiv.org/abs/0907.0042
    • This person Karo Michaelian has been screaming on the comments of the linked article that this research is not new apparently.
      • Re:Not new (Score:5, Informative)

        by schneidafunk (795759) on Friday January 24, 2014 @12:25PM (#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: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

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

    • 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 ...
    • 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, e
      • 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.

        Not if those molecules are stable. You start with N variables. You end up with fewer than N variables. That is a reduction in entropy.

    • by G3ckoG33k (647276)

      The difference is that Jeremy L England has more influential friends within media.

  • 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.

    • by Bengie (1121981)
      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.
  • 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

  • Better start rewriting some chapters in those Texas physics textbooks then...
    • by es330td (964170)
      You can have our textbooks when you pry them from our cold, dead fingers...
      • You might want to be careful who hears you say that. According to some interpretations of the NDAA, there are people who would make that happen.

  • What is Life (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Yergle143 (848772) on Friday January 24, 2014 @12:42PM (#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.

    • one kind of life we know of

      • by Yergle143 (848772)

        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 (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Jason Levine (196982) on Friday January 24, 2014 @01:05PM (#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.

      • by Yergle143 (848772)

        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?

      • by deuterium (96874)

        My thoughts too. Once any form has taken root, it monopolizes this route. It took all the low hanging fruit that spurred the process to begin with, The environment isn't the same as it once was.

      • by Rich0 (548339)

        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.

        The problem with this argument is that it only works if all the other forms of life were completely exterminated. We've found a lot of strange stuff in exotic places, but it all uses the same genetic code/etc as everything else. It seems unlikely to me that life began on earth more than once, unless you use a really weak version of began (like a piece of RNA formed but never did anything - I'd argue it was never alive to start). If life gets going well enough to start replicating and spreading, then I do

    • by c0lo (1497653)

      Step off physicists, this field belongs to chemists.

      Oh, hey guys [xkcd.com]

    • In the end, everything is physics.
      That's why physicists rule.
  • by jw3 (99683) on Friday January 24, 2014 @01:11PM (#46057717) Homepage

    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]

  • "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 re

    • by terryk29 (2756467)

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

      ...

      * 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]

      For more context, from the article:

      England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “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.”

      I think what you are calling "rabid" is merely a defensive reaction to the dialogue from the camp that can't accept the reality of Darwinian theory.

      There are plenty of examples of Darwinian unbelievers ;-) either misunderstanding or misrepresenting accepted or hypothesized scientific ideas in order to sway others. I recall a blurb (handed to me at the door of the house) that attempted to shoot down the scientific picture of "creation", and it quoted Stephen J. Gould direc

  • by qubex (206736) on Friday January 24, 2014 @01:37PM (#46058087) Homepage

    In the Journal of Chemical Physics, England describes YOU!

  • 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.

  • "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.

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

C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas l'Informatique. -- Bosquet [on seeing the IBM 4341]

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