A New Physics Theory of Life

Jeremy England presents a theory that particles in a bath of liquid, exposed to an external energy source, are driven to adapt their structures to become better at dissipating energy by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In other words the evolution of life is a special case of a more general physics phenomenon.

“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.

Life does not violate the second law of thermodynamics, but until recently, physicists were unable to use thermodynamics to explain why it should arise in the first place.

This situation changed in the late 1990s,... Jarzynski and Crooks showed that the entropy produced by a thermodynamic process ... corresponds to a simple ratio: the probability that the atoms will undergo that process divided by their probability of undergoing the reverse process (that is, spontaneously interacting in such a way that the coffee warms up). As entropy production increases, so does this ratio: A system’s behavior becomes more and more “irreversible.” The simple yet rigorous formula could in principle be applied to any thermodynamic process, no matter how fast or far from equilibrium. “Our understanding of far-from-equilibrium statistical mechanics greatly improved,” Grosberg said. England, who is trained in both biochemistry and physics, started his own lab at MIT two years ago and decided to apply the new knowledge of statistical physics to biology. [emphasis mine]

Using Jarzynski and Crooks’ formulation, he derived a generalization of the second law of thermodynamics that holds for systems of particles with certain characteristics: The systems are strongly driven by an external energy source such as an electromagnetic wave, and they can dump heat into a surrounding bath. This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said.

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.”

Besides self-replication, greater structural organization is another means by which strongly driven systems ramp up their ability to dissipate energy. A plant, for example, is much better at capturing and routing solar energy through itself than an unstructured heap of carbon atoms. Thus, England argues that under certain conditions, matter will spontaneously self-organize. [emphasis mine]

Tags: Jeremy England, dissipation-driven adaptive organization, evolution

Views: 52

Replies to This Discussion

OK, I think I understand, reproduction is the process that drives evolution. Dissipating more is to make more copies of oneself. The process begins, dissipation occurs, replicating continues. Matter spontaneously begins and self organizes. 

"Self-Replicating Sphere Clusters: According to new research at Harvard, coating the surfaces of microspheres can cause them to spontaneously assemble into a chosen structure, such as a polytetrahedron (red), which then triggers nearby spheres into forming an identical structure."

The language is similar to fractal language, perhaps the visual of what happens to microspheres. 

"Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. "

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