Tag Archives: Thermodynamics and biology

Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things–A Review…and a Deeper Look Into the ‘Fire’ of Life..

This is a book about ‘life’, that which animates particular organic structures, organisms, absent from other ‘structures’ which remain fixed, but for the physical and chemical forces which wear them down. From our human perspective, this sets ourselves, and all other living things, apart from the inert, nonliving, matter that comprises our world and the universe. England, as a physicist, sees the world of nature and all matter within it, differently than most of us. Science has demonstrated that the universe tends to operates under consistent ‘laws’. Organisms, while a special ‘class’ of matter, are still of matter composed of the same atoms joined together in complex macromolecules not found outside of organisms, which are in fact created within organisms. They occupy a different section along a continuum defined by energy, a ‘family’ of complex, shared organic structures. This complexity of structure goes to determining their functionality. Function increases and diversifies as complexity increases, capacities are expanded and the flow of energy through them becomes an effective and sustaining agent in their ‘being’ and evolution. His view is consistent with the many other physicists who have looked into life and view it as an inevitable outcome of the processes, energies and materials that comprise Earth’s particular corner of the universe. Earth appears to be a relatively rare occurrence, but it is extremely doubtful that it is a singular one. Given the particular mix of ‘ingredients’ and energies here, matter has come together over the course of over 4 billion years to form life as we know it because it could and whatever is possible/probable tends to happen with a degree of frequency. Particular patterns precede those to follow, not necessarily determining them, but increasing the likelihood that they will. The flow of energy through matter tends to ‘favor’ a range of outcomes. Those outcomes tend to favor the next, building from one ‘success’ to the next.

Many of these patterns and energy flows occur at molecular levels well below our ability to observe and measure. These patterns are not generally obvious to us.  Our perceptions are shaped by our beliefs about the world. We tend to ‘see’ what we expect to see, not necessarily what is there. We shape our perceived world into the commonly shared story that has been passed on to us. Our particular indoctrination, our educations, all go toward determining what we see, then we take our experience and use it to reinforce that understanding. In a sense we ‘choose’ our reality. From the moment we each open our mouths or put word to page, we do this. Our language and knowledge limit us. It requires that we distill our perceptions, our experiences and our understanding into a comprehensible form. We are then limited by our biases, our language, what we already ‘know’. We are all at a ‘remove’ in this sense, apart from the world in which we live, although we are intimately immersed in it. As ‘western’ people we tend to see ourselves as separate from it. In actuality, we can never be so. England looks into this question of what life is by taking our modern and still developing idea of ‘thermodynamics’, our study of energy and the way that it ‘works’ on the stuff of the universe, on matter, as his way into this ‘story’. Energy is transformative. Matter, is arguably, a particular expression of energy. One can be translated into the other.

England is a theoretical physicist. You will not find in this book a detailed explanation of the living organism or even a detailed description of the flow of energy through one. Thermodynamics and his idea of dissipative adaptation are larger concepts that can give us a framework for understanding the bigger picture of an almost unfathomably complex topic. England joins with those today who would argue that any living organism is not so much a thing as it is a process, in a state of continuous change, a process which both follows a probable, understandable, path, and is itself a part of the larger/longer process of evolution, of becoming, building on itself and life’s many patterns, as it moves ahead through time toward something unknowable to us. We exist from moment to moment, a ‘response’, one of a particular and massive set of more or less likely probabilities, each which influences what will follow, within a universe of definable ‘law’. Here England gives us an intellectual framework for understanding the processes at play in this process of living. Living organisms are conductors of a continuous flow of energy through them from outside and back after it has degraded. This flow of energy acts in very particular ways on the molecules, cells, tissues and organs of an organism…until it no longer can. An organism, is in a sense, a conductor, a channel through which energy flows from a higher, more available state, to a lower, less available state. Energy drives them, permits them and enables them so that they are in this sense ‘self’ sustaining…as long as the energy flows and the organism can maintain the integrity of its structure at all levels.

The following is an extensive quote from his book: Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Organisms, pp. 113-116.

…a plant—for example—has to be thought of as holding steady on a steep [energy] hillside in a constant state of free fall. Much like the chemicals in a battery powering a flashlight, many molecules in a plant are constantly undergoing reactions that convert them into other, lower-energy forms. At the same time, randomizing thermal fluctuations are taking the specially ordered components of each cell that have been assembled in a particular fashion and wreaking havoc with them, either through chemical damage or via larger-scale physical rearrangements. In permanent darkness, a plant is therefore on a slow road to death, for dying in physical terms is nothing more than sliding downhill in a variety of chemical and physical ways. Of course, plants can survive just fine for a while in the dark, but not forever. [Animals, for the most part exist in a much more precarious balance requiring much higher energy flows for a given mass.] Eventually, the twin tendencies to lower energy and higher disorder that are required by the fall to thermal equilibrium will win out, and the pile of matter that was originally a live organism will start to look less and less like one.
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A Review and thoughts on Peter Hoffmann’s book, “Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from  Chaos”, Basic Books, 2012. 

This is a relatively technical book, one whose title, with its definite mechanistic spin, nearly stopped me from reading it. In this Hoffmann begins with a history of science and how we have looked at life as a remarkable process from the days of Aristotle to today and how that has shaped our inquiry and our capacity to understand it. Is life possible only because of some inexplicable, and yet unknown, ‘vital’ force? Are organisms endowed with this gift of life by a creator? or are there physical laws which shape and determine life? There has been a long ‘battle’ waged between the various ‘vitalists’ and mechanists, the later who once viewed an organism as a special machine, popularly comparable to a watch or clock, animated by a ‘vital’ force, who over time evolved their search into that of more recent times of seemingly fantastical molecular mechanisms, ‘engines’, within an organism which, because of their nano-scale can perform and behave in ways that appear incredible to the layperson. Continue reading

On Life: An Annotated Reading List of Titles Exploring the Physics, Biology, Evolution, Natural Selection and the Generative Power of Far Out of Equilibrium Dissipative Structures (Organisms)

Nurse, Paul, “What is Life?: Five Great Ideas in Biology”, WW Norton and Co., 2021. I’m placing this book out of order here, its American edition just released this year and I’ve only just read it, because I concur that this is an excellent introduction to its topic and should be accessible to a broad audience, one without an academic background in biology. It does what Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, does for its readers, presents in a compact and cogent way the central ideas for understanding the science of life. Nurse, is a Nobel Prize winning geneticist and cell biologist, who has dedicated his research life to the study of the cell and what sets this class of matter apart and unique, looking into its structure, chemistry/metabolism, reproduction, evolution and the relationships and communication which must occur within and between cells. He looks into what genetics is and isn’t capable of, what it seems to control, the genes for 20,000 some different proteins included within our DNA, while leaving open to question the instructions and detailed directions, how the growth and development of an organism is actually determined.

The reader will benefit from having some basic understanding of chemistry to fully grasp what he writes here, but this is an excellent starting point.  At 143 pages this book shouldn’t scare off the reader.  This is a window into life and should peek the readers interest as Nurse reveals what he still finds so fascinating about life and this world.

Al-Khalili, Jim and Johnjoe McFadden, “Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology”, Broadway Books, 2016. In the world of science, quantum biology is a toddler.  Quantum mechanics itself only began a hundred plus years ago and quickly began redefining the way that physicists look at the world.  Today most branches of science are transforming themselves, aligning themselves with this new reality of physics.  This may be impacting none of the sciences more than it is biology and the life sciences.  What was once limited to the quantum world of elementary particles so much smaller than we can see even with technology’s assistance, today we are finding quantum actions behind even the most simple processes up to and including the energy and origins of life.  Mass and energy lie at the heart of everything and life is a very particular case of highly complex ordering of that mass and energy, intricately linked in coherent relationships, borne out of seemingly random, chaotic, actions at a subatomic level.  In these systems/organisms life has evolved effective patterns that ‘feed’ on themselves, self-regulating, self-maintaining, able to reproduce with great ‘fidelity’ to one’s parent organisms, energy dissipating structures, dynamic, balanced between stasis or death and a runaway consumption of one’s self,, a conflagration.  Patterns built on more basic patterns, conformed into very particular resonant structures which are additive and transformative, never perfect, evolving towards greater complexity and capacity, structures that ‘live’ in relationship to one another in a supportive manner, dynamic, time limited and ‘stable’ in a self-reinforcing sense…existing in different states, simultaneously.  Follow Al-Khalili and McFadden down part of a ‘proven’ path. Continue reading