Fun Science FRIEDay – Life is Inevitable

Why does life exist? Its an age old question that has been debated for centuries with popular hypotheses crediting celestial interference, a primordial soup, or a colossal stroke of luck. However, a relatively recent and provocative hypothesis suggests luck has nothing to do with it, and that instead, life is an inevitable consequence of physics.

The author of the concept, Jeremy England – professor of biophysics at MIT, suggests, “the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”


(Photo credit: creative-bioarray)

England asserts that the one key difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms is that the former tends to be much more efficient at capturing energy from the environment and dissipating that energy as heat. England derived a formula he believes explains this capacity. 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’s hypothesis bridges physics and biology and is rooted in the second law of thermodynamics known as the law of increasing entropy. Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. The best explanation I’ve heard of this is to 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.

Essentially England is proposing 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: “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.”

You can read his seminal manuscript describing this hypothesis in the Journal of Chemical Physics.