No. of Recommendations: 6
Jeremy England is a young biophysicist with an interesting take on nonlinear far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics: he sees life as an inevitable outcome of thermodynamics. To quote from a recent article in Quanta Magazine,"his [2013] equations suggested that under certain conditions, groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves so as to burn more and more energy, facilitating the incessant dispersal of energy and the rise of entropy, or disorder in the universe."

These ideas are not particularly new, but he seems to have found a biochemical formulation that can be reduced to a simulation and tested. I first looked at this constellation of ideas back in 1971, while casting about for a good PhD dissertation topic. At that time Ilya Prigogine and colleagues had published the first sound theories of far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, and were hot on this trail. They formulated a decent theory of stationary states (non-equilibrium catalyzed chemical reactions that burned free incoming free energy and generated fascinating geometric patterns seemingly out of nothing). This work earned a Nobel Prize, but the group ran out of creative energy and disbanded in the late 1970s. I could see that they were at a standstill, but I could not see the next step to take. I moved on to other areas.

Over the intervening decades the topic was not forgotten by physicists, but there was little direct progress. However, great progress was made in a neighboring discipline (continuum mechanics), which succeeded in building up a beautiful theoretical edifice that, in essence, derives ALL physical properties of macroscopic matter from the entropy production inequality -- the starting point for Jeremy England. This is amazing mathematics, easily on a par with (and using the same tensor mathematics as) Einstein's general theory of relativity. With this as his jumping-off point, England returned focus to the origin of life.

Where Prigogine tried to base his formulation on the idea that matter which is far from equilibrium will move towards minimizing entropy production, England is exploring the idea that such systems will reorganize to burn more and more free energy. It's a very similar idea, but with useful implications. Both approaches employ the general thesis that life is a property of systems that irreversibly dissipate energy in regular describable ways. There might be other general principles that could be employed as alternatives, but for now England's concept has already achieved more than any other.

The article in Quanta Magazine contains no mathematics, but it's not difficult to see what the theory actually looks like if you are acquainted with continuum mechanics and Prigogine's prior work. Like many other mathematicians, I have decided to pull up a chair to watch and cheer from the sidelines as a new and very young research group takes a deep dive into this age-old problem. It is going to be a lot of fun.

A place to start, with links into the literature:

Print the post Back To Top