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Math Earth Science

The Information Theory of Life (quantamagazine.org) 90

An anonymous reader writes with this story about Michigan State University Professor Cristop Adami and his quest to answer how life arose with mathematics. From the Quanta story: "Christoph Adami does not know how life got started, but he knows a lot of other things. His main expertise is in information theory, a branch of applied mathematics developed in the 1940s for understanding information transmissions over a wire. Since then, the field has found wide application, and few researchers have done more in that regard than Adami, who is a professor of physics and astronomy and also microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University. He takes the analytical perspective provided by information theory and transplants it into a great range of disciplines, including microbiology, genetics, physics, astronomy and neuroscience. Lately, he's been using it to pry open a statistical window onto the circumstances that might have existed at the moment life first clicked into place.

To do this, he begins with a mental leap: Life, he argues, should not be thought of as a chemical event. Instead, it should be thought of as information. The shift in perspective provides a tidy way in which to begin tackling a messy question. In the following interview, Adami defines information as 'the ability to make predictions with a likelihood better than chance,' and he says we should think of the human genome — or the genome of any organism — as a repository of information about the world gathered in small bits over time through the process of evolution. The repository includes information on everything we could possibly need to know, such as how to convert sugar into energy, how to evade a predator on the savannah, and, most critically for evolution, how to reproduce or self-replicate."
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The Information Theory of Life

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Overall,, TFA comes off as a well written piece. However, I do have a bone to pick on the following:

    ...The repository includes information on everything we could possibly need to know ...

    I beg to differ

    To paraphrase a famous quote from someone:
    1. There are things that we know we know
    2. There are things that we know we don't know
    3. There are things that we don't know we know
    and then ...
    4. There are things that we don't know we don't know

    It is the item #4 that is the most important of all

    • by Tough Love ( 215404 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @05:29AM (#50968293)

      Thank goodness for your post. Before it, we didn't know we don't know there are things we don't know.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Thank goodness for your post. Before it, we didn't know we don't know there are things we don't know.

        Wait, I didn't know that!

        • Thank goodness for your post. Before it, we didn't know we don't know there are things we don't know.

          Wait, I didn't know that!

          How do you know that you didn't know that?

      • Actually he's correct. More to the point, the genome does not contain everything we need to know. It contains a lot of noise as well. The genome is a mutation. Information theory does not work because it fails to account for the simple fact that: it's a bloody chemical process, and dna recombination is random. Would these people simply fuck off and go paint sea turtles.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          Actually he's correct. More to the point, the genome does not contain everything we need to know. It contains a lot of noise as well. The genome is a mutation. Information theory does not work because it fails to account for the simple fact that: it's a bloody chemical process, and dna recombination is random. Would these people simply fuck off and go paint sea turtles.

          Noise = things we don't know (yet) what are they and what are their purpose.

    • You might be thinking of Donald Rumsfeld. [wikipedia.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 20, 2015 @02:25AM (#50967863)

    I was part of some lunchtime discussions with Cristoph Adami back when he was still in California. At a time when much of scientific research has devolved into a bureaucratic exercise of meeting publication quotas, he stood out as being genuinely interested in discovering new things. I was in a more junior position but he always seemed interested in my, and everyone else's, thoughts on their own merit.

    On the other hand, he did seem to like to tackle the big questions. And that comes with a certain risk of failure. At Michigan State, he is definitely a big fish in a small pond. But perhaps that gives him more freedom to take risks - than if he were at a more prestigious but competitive institution.

  • It's all just mathematics [xkcd.com] at the end of the day.

    • Tegmark certainly believes so [wikipedia.org], but YMMV [columbia.edu].
    • Math my dear boy is nothing more than the lesbian sister of biology.
    • It's all just mathematics [xkcd.com] at the end of the day.

      While that is true, it also suffers from the failings of math. The hypothesis is that life is the transmission of information. Okay, then instead of asking how life began, the question becomes where did the information come from that is being transmitted?

      In other words, if life is the transmission of information and there is no information to transmit, then there is no life. Since there is life, there must have been information to transmit, so where did it come from?

      • by KGIII ( 973947 )

        My current working mental theory is, if you want to hear it, that information is similar to matter. It may not be tangible but it exists. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Matter can be altered in many ways.

        Information is similar to matter, in my current thinking, in that it has "always" been here. It has neither been created nor destroyed. It has simply been put together in new and interesting ways. It has been learned about, it has been combined, it has faded from our records but is not gone.

        I'

    • Reductionism has its limits - for example. while I have no doubt that the history of life on earth can in principle be described purely as a sequence of physical processes, a theory of evolution works at an appropriate level of abstraction and provides much more insight.

  • Probably the best definition of life I've ever heard.

    There are still a huge number of line drawing problems--when is life intelligent, when is it permissible to end a life, etc...

    But it's a really great way of encompassing pretty much every form of theoretical life.

  • The repository includes information on everything we could possibly need to know, such as how to convert sugar into energy, how to evade a predator on the savannah, and, most critically for evolution, how to reproduce or self-replicate."

    It's not true. I'm sure there's plenty of "knowledge" still to come. And I'm also sure there's plenty of information that we used to "know" that we don't anymore. Otherwise he would be arguing that we are the end point of evolution and that nothing has ever gone extinct before.

    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

      http://science.slashdot.org/co... [slashdot.org]

      I don't feel like typing it all out again. You may be interested in it. Feel free to tear it apart, poke at it, ponder it, whatever. It's just something that's been stuck in my head for 30 years or so - it's likely wrong but it does make for some interesting thoughts.

  • "...information theory, a branch of applied mathematics..."

    It is not; it is a branch of electrical engineering.

    • by Katatsumuri ( 1137173 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @06:03AM (#50968379)
      For what it's worth, Wikipedia says it is "a branch of applied mathematics, electrical engineering, and computer science". It originated in EE / signal processing, but has broadened since.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        It hasn't only broadened, it also became more fundamental. From my CS/machine learning perspective, Information Theory is a branch of probability theory/stochastics and I would call it fundamental mathematics. For example some central theorems in Information Theory are the equivalents of the Central Limit Theorem and the Law of Large Numbers. Then there are concepts like Fisher Information, Kolmogorov Complexity, etc. that are used in numerous application areas. Perhaps there are more people working with ap

    • "...information theory, a branch of applied mathematics..."

      It is not; it is a branch of electrical engineering.

      I thought engineering was a part of applied mathematics?

  • by jw3 ( 99683 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @06:00AM (#50968371) Homepage

    ...I can only refer you to this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id... [smbc-comics.com]

  • ... that the origin of life is spirit. Yes, it's put in different words and there's math behind it to back up the theory, but it's basically the same thing.

    I'd argue the same way. Wether I'm close to an ape or close to something else makes no different. A spider, bird or jellyfish posting here on slashdot and joining the discussion would be closer to us that we are to an ape, because it's our consciousness that makes us distinctly human vis-a-vis the (rest of) the animal or plant kingdom.

    I'll be glad when w

    • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

      "because it's our consciousness that makes us distinctly human vis-a-vis the (rest of) the animal or plant kingdom."

      Err , I think its been pretty well demonstrated numerous times that all animals have conciousness in varying degrees. If you think humans are special in that regard then I'm afraid you're wrong. What makes us special is our opposable thumb and our intelligence , but thats not the same as conciousness.

      • "because it's our consciousness that makes us distinctly human vis-a-vis the (rest of) the animal or plant kingdom."

        Err , I think its been pretty well demonstrated numerous times that all animals have conciousness in varying degrees. If you think humans are special in that regard then I'm afraid you're wrong. What makes us special is our opposable thumb and our intelligence , but thats not the same as conciousness.

        That is only true if you take "consciousness" to mean something like "being aware of your surroundings". Self evidently, a cat is aware of a mouse it's hunting and a mouse is aware that there is a cat trying to catch it, or else the cat wouldn't know there was a mouse to catch and the mouse wouldn't be able to react and try to run away. But that is such a wide definition that it's meaningless.

        Human consciousness implies self-awareness. Most animals do not have this. There is some evidence that chimps a

    • Isn't spirit just another word for "breath" or "rhythm"? Here I think it would be metaphorical, like when physicists say a particle "feels" a force.
    • ... that the origin of life is spirit. Yes, it's put in different words and there's math behind it to back up the theory, but it's basically the same thing.

      Why do you think it's the same thing? How could you even tell if something is the same as "spirit"?

      What do you mean by "spirit"? Can you define it? I don't just mean some vague mutterings that define one word in terms of a bunch of other equally vague, undefined words. I mean something rigorous, so we can look at things and clearly say whether they do or don't meet the definition.

      Information theorists do have a precise, rigorous definition of information. Mystics spend millennia muttering in their mys

      • ... that the origin of life is spirit. Yes, it's put in different words and there's math behind it to back up the theory, but it's basically the same thing.

        Why do you think it's the same thing? How could you even tell if something is the same as "spirit"?

        What do you mean by "spirit"? Can you define it? I don't just mean some vague mutterings that define one word in terms of a bunch of other equally vague, undefined words. I mean something rigorous, so we can look at things and clearly say whether they do or don't meet the definition.

        Information theorists do have a precise, rigorous definition of information. Mystics spend millennia muttering in their mystical way. Then scientists come along and do something entirely new, rigorous, and well defined. Then the mystics say, "Look, that's exactly the same thing we've been saying all along!" Except it isn't. One is a rigorous theory you can use to make precise predictions, while the other is just a bunch of vague mutterings. No matter what the scientists discover, the mystics will find a way to claim it's the same as what they said.

        Indeed. If you can't make a quantitative model, it's philosophy/mysticism/rhetoric, not science

  • To do this, he begins with a mental leap: Life, he argues, should not be thought of as a chemical event. Instead, it should be thought of as information.

    I'm sure we're lacking a 'quantum' or two in that sentence. Why is it that every scientific theory and discovery must be presented as a world-shaking sensation? I'm sure the good professor himself will find this article somewhat alien to his no doubt quite sober work. No scientist worth his salt would state categorically (and in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary) that 'life is not chemical, it's information' - what he probably says is 'Would it be useful to consider life from the point of view of

    • No scientist worth his salt would state categorically (and in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary) that 'life is not chemical, it's information'

      That claim is decades out of date. Lots of scientists (myself included) view life primarily in terms of information. The core feature of living systems is using energy to maintain themselves indefinitely in a state of low entropy. And entropy is defined in terms of information. Earth based life happens to do that with reactions between a certain collection of organic molecules, but that's an implementation detail.

      • I understand and accept what you are saying, but what I am saying is, that it is wrong to develop the kind of tunnelvision that says things like "Life is exclusively .....". Information theory no doubt gives us a valuable perspective, but it is only one of several.

  • by a_n_d_e_r_s ( 136412 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @07:25AM (#50968585) Homepage Journal

    we are just searching for the question.

    The answer is 42.

    Science fictions writers. Predicting science long before scientists.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Using his modelling maybe we can end milk shortages by figuring out how to create spherical cows [wikipedia.org]

  • From the interview:

    Q. But where did that first bit of self-referential information come from?

    A. We of course know that all life on Earth has enormous amounts of information that comes from evolution, which allows information to grow slowly. Before evolution, you couldn’t have this process. As a consequence, the first piece of information has to have arisen by chance.

    I'm sorry, but this answer is nearly incomprehensible. Information "comes from" evolution, which then "allows" it to "grow", but before e

    • And, before evolution the first "piece" of information rose by "chance"? What does that even mean?

      See the definition of information in the summary: "the ability to make predictions with a likelihood better than chance". It doesn't matter where the information came from. As long as you can make predictions, there is information.

      That's a key point to understand. It isn't the information that makes predictions. It's you, an outside observer, who makes predictions. If you observe a molecule which has a tendency to reproduce itself, you can immediately make a prediction: that in the future, there will b

  • by taylorius ( 221419 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @08:57AM (#50968921) Homepage

    Man with a hammer spots something that looks a bit like a nice big nail.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Exactly this.

      "Life, he argues, should not be thought of as a chemical event. Instead, it should be thought of as information."

      Coming from an information scientist, is anyone surprised?

      • by kubajz ( 964091 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @11:44AM (#50969935)
        As a matter of the fact, he is not the first person to think of this. No matter what media you use (biological matter, transistors) information is the same thing whether it is stored in DNA or on an optical drive. It is clear that DNA contains lots of information that you can measure and you can apply the same research tools in many cases that you apply in computer science.

        One interesting thing is how the information got into the DNA - was it somehow "collected" from the system over the generations (i.e. it was always present in the system since the Big Bang?) or is information somehow "generated" over time (which is strange, because the process that creates it would probably contain the information in its definition)...

        In other words, the questions are definitely interesting, and I think sometimes it is not a bad idea to realize that if you see a nail and have a hammer, you might apply the latter to the former :)

        • As a matter of the fact, he is not the first person to think of this.

          Quite. just as a "for instance,", in the late 1990s I was reading related ideas by a German called Manfreid Eigen published back in the early 1990s, and Eigen was referring back to work from the 80s and 70s. It's a well-established way of thinking about things, even if it does somewhat bemuse chemists, geologist and others trying to approach the same problems from their own fields of expertise.

          was it somehow "collected" from the system ove

  • by ColoradoAuthor ( 682295 ) on Friday November 20, 2015 @12:03PM (#50970069) Homepage
    Alternate headline: "Academic incrementally advances an established line of thought."

    Lila Gatlin was writing about this in the 1960s and 70s.

    "Life may be defined operationally as an information processing system—a structural hierarchy of functioning units—that has acquired through evolution the ability to store and process the information necessary for its own accurate reproduction." --Lila Gatlin, Information Theory and the Living System, 1971

    I'd like more insight on how Adami's contributions are especially significant (which they may be, but TFA doesn't make that clear). Or is it just that he's a really good spokesman?

  • I don't think you can have much of a theory of the origin of life until you have a plausible chemical story.

  • Adami defines information as 'the ability to make predictions with a likelihood better than chance,'

    Seems like everyone has their own pet definition of information. Isn't the above the opposite of Shannon's definition of information ie a random noise high entropy signal has lots of information while a predictable signal has low information.

  • And people coming at it from different angles http://cosmicfingerprints.com/... [cosmicfingerprints.com]

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