A New Story of Life

birth-of-christ“Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"
– Christmas Carol by Charles Wesley – 1739

The Nobel Prize Awards day

Today is December 10th and over Stockholm, Sweden, the sun rises at 8.32 AM and sets at 2.48 PM, which means six hours and sixteen minutes of daylight. If the winter snow has arrived it brings a bit more light, but this year there is no snow yet and Stockholm is dark and gloomy. Below is a webcam screen shot from just now.


What is significant about today is that on December 10th, since 1901, the Nobel Prizes are presented in Stockholm at the annual Prize Award Ceremony. Today is the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. I wrote about him and the story behind the prize in an article a couple of years ago.

The Nobel Laureates take centre stage in Stockholm and from 4.30 PM there is a live broadcast of the Award ceremony by Swedish Television, when they receive the Nobel Medal, Nobel Diploma and a document confirming the Nobel Prize amount from King Carl XVI Gustaf. Later in the evening there is a live broadcast of a banquet, a feast in the honour of science. In Oslo, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates receive their Nobel Peace Prize a bit earlier, at 12.50 PM, from the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the presence of King Harald V of Norway.


The Sciences

The scientific Nobel Prizes are awarded to those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, peace, and physiology or medicine. The main branches of science are commonly divided into three major groups: natural sciences, which study natural phenomena (including fundamental forces and biological life), formal sciences (such as mathematics and logic) and social sciences, which study human behaviour and societies.

The Natural sciences and social sciences are empirical sciences, which means the knowledge must be based on observable phenomena and be capable of being tested for its validity by other researchers working under the same conditions. The natural sciences can be broken into two main branches: biology and physical science, where biology examines phenomena related to living organisms and physics is about the study of the fundamental forces of the universe, the interactions they exert on one another, and the results produced by these interactions.  Biology and physics have traditionally been separated as drain pipes in education and research, but no longer.

The Physicists Idea of Evolution

Jeremy EnglandThis year, a  young MIT physics researcher, Professor Jeremy England, has come up with a new theory of evolution, which is traditionally very much a topic for biologists. He has published a brief research paper which is available here.

He asks the question, what does all matter (such as rocks, plants, animals, and humans) have in common? One answer is, we all absorb and dissipate energy. While a rock absorbs a small amount of energy before releasing what it does not use back into the universe, life takes in more energy and releases less. This makes life better at redistributing energy, and the process of converting and dissipating energy is simply a fundamental characteristic of the universe.

According to England, the second law of thermodynamics gives life its meaning. The law states that entropy, i.e. decay, will continuously increase.

IMG_4310Consider my hot cup of coffee here on the left. It sits at a room temperature of about 20 degrees Celsius. Eventually, the cup of coffee will reach room temperature and stay there: its energy will have dissipated. Now imagine molecules swimming in a warm primordial ocean. England claims that matter will slowly but inevitably reorganise itself into forms that better dissipate the warm oceanic energy.

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and stationary lumps of carbon atoms. The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat.

imageProfessor England has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this force and how it enables life. The formula, based on established physics, 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. Isn’t this a beautiful thought?

Professor England’s theory can be seen as a foundation to, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations.

I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explains. “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.

Professor England, being a physicist, may be considered to be out on thin ice, making explanations of the theory of life using his tools of physics, but what he has come up with is really interesting. Maybe in a couple of decades, we will see him on the prize podium in Stockholm on December 10th?

To me, Professor England´s idea is a good illustration of innovative thinking at its best. The forces of physics, especially the second law of thermodynamics, are well known. What he does is apply the existing knowledge in a new context, looking at the scientific problems of biology. Thinking outside the box.

Below is a one hour video of a lecture he gave at the Karolinska Insitute in September.

Jeremy England–A New Theory of Evolutionary Adaption

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