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A Thermodynamics Theory of the Origins of Life 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.'"
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A Thermodynamics Theory of the Origins of Life

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  • by RaceProUK ( 1137575 ) on Friday January 24, 2014 @11:06AM (#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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 24, 2014 @11:08AM (#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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 24, 2014 @11:10AM (#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...

  • by RichMan ( 8097 ) on Friday January 24, 2014 @11:18AM (#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).

  • What is Life (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Yergle143 ( 848772 ) on Friday January 24, 2014 @11:42AM (#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 (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Friday January 24, 2014 @12:05PM (#46057647) Homepage

    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 Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Friday January 24, 2014 @01:51PM (#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.

  • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) on Friday January 24, 2014 @08:45PM (#46063579) Journal
    Hydrogen, Venus used to have tons of it bonded to oxygen in an ocean, the ocean boiled under a runaway greenhouse, radiation then split the water vapour blasting the hydrogen off the planet. The oxygen then found some carbon to bind with which is why it's called a "runaway" greenhouse. The fate awaits the Earth in roughly half a billion years.

    As TFA said "life is a special case", ie: Life needs certain ingredients in a specific environment to be the most efficient way to dissipate energy, but life is not the only example of spontaneous self-organising matter (crystals are an obvious example). This guy's idea attempts to explain ALL spontaneous self-organization of matter as a natural consequence of the second law of thermodynamics. When you get down to the molecular scale the line between alive and not-alive is poorly defined, my personal opinion is that "life" is an arbitrary distinction between different types of chemistry, a word invented by humans to more easily comprehend and talk about the world around us. Interestingly the distinction between alive and not-alive is a modern way of seeing the world, the oldest tribal religions (polytheism) believed everything had a spirit (was alive), including rocks, clouds, and celestial bodies.

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