Meet the MIT physicist who may one-up Darwin and explain the origin of life

In Science & Technology
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How did life come about? Darwin explained how complex life evolves over time, but how did it start in the first place?

Can it be that life sprang from ordinary matter simply as a consequence of the fundamental laws of nature?

This idea has been put forward by MIT physicist, Jeremy England. The law in question is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or increasing entropy. He is suggesting that increasing entropy drives matter to acquire lifelike physical properties.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change form or be transferred from one object to another. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, also called the law of increasing entropy, states that as energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted. Essentially entropy is the measure of disorder and randomness in a system.

Living things are good at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. The high degree of organization of living things is maintained because of the constant input of energy and the continual an increase in the entropy of the surroundings.

England’s hypothesis, which he has interpreted in a mathematical formula, 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. In other words, it will start behaving like living things.

Did you get that? Under certain conditions that involve heat, any group of atoms could conceivably eventually become alive.

In his own words: “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.”

Scientists considers England’s theoretical results as generally sound, but point out that at this point his formula doesn’t represent a proven mechanism that life arose from ordinary matter.

Nonetheless, other scientists, like Mara Prentiss, a professor of physics at Harvard, are excited about his theory. Prentiss for one, is thinking about ways to investigate his ideas in a lab.