A few years back, a remarkable new hypothesis made its way into the scientific zeitgeist – namely, that life is an inevitable consequence of physics. The author of this concept, an associate professor of biophysics at MIT named Jeremy England, has now published the first major papers testing out this idea, and it’s looking like he might be right on the money.
England’s hypothesis is a key bridge between physics and biology. Although it’s not yet conclusively proven, it potentially holds the key to answering one of the greatest questions of all: Where did we come from?
Here’s what his work is arguing. Thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, the universe is heading towards a state of complete structural disorder. It’s tumbling towards a state where everything is essentially the same no matter how the constituent parts are arranged.
This is known as “maximum entropy”, where everything on an energy level is balanced, everywhere.
Right now, though, there are pockets of order, of low entropy – objects and things that cannot be atomically rearranged and still be the same thing (planets and life, for example). They are the exceptions to an increasingly disordered universe, something first highlighted by Schrodinger’s seminal 1944 essay What Is Life?
Think of a pool of water with three color dyes dropped in it. Initially, they remain as separate dots far apart, but over time, the colors spread out, mix, and in the end, there’s just one single color. That’s the universe; the dots, in this case, can be pockets of biological life.
A rather wonderful explanation of entropy. BBC via YouTube
England is suggesting that biology arises because, in certain environments – like on planets – where the energy balance is so out of whack, physics guarantees that atoms rearrange themselves to be able to deal with the chaotic flow of energy. These atomic structures just happen to resemble what we refer to as “life”.
As England famously said back in 2014: “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.”