Feb 04, 2016 6:17 AM GMT
Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”
From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. 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.
England has received a lot of publicity for his mathematical explanation of the origins of life known as dissipation-driven adaptation. The theory holds that random groups of molecules can self-organize to more "efficiently use energy in their environment. Over time, the system could improve its ability to absorb energy, becoming increasingly lifelike." His theory states that such self-organizing systems are an inherent part of the physical world.
Pulitzer-Prize winning science historian Edward J. Larson said that if England can demonstrate his theory to be true, "he could be the next Darwin."