Entropy and Life

There are some interesting links between the concept of entropy and the existence of life in the universe. It seems as though the two are connected somehow, but we’re not entirely sure what the basest relationship is. We do know that you need entropy in order to have life (life is, essentially, the universal journey from order to disorder).

A new study published in the Journal of Chemical Physics (lead author Jeremy England) has revealed a mathematical formula that could potentially explain how life grew out of the basic process of entropy (if you don’t want to read the technical paper, there’s an article about it here).

What we have glimpsed here is that the underlying connection between entropy production and transition probability has a much more general applicability, so long as we recognize that “self-replication” is only visible once an observer decides how to classify the “self” in the system: only once a coarse-graining scheme determines how many copies of some object are present for each microstate can we talk in probabilistic terms about the general tendency for that type of object to affect its own reproduction, and the same system’s microstates can be coarse-grained using any number of different schemes. Whatever the scheme, however, the resulting stochastic population dynamics must obey the same general relationship entwining heat, organization, and durability. We may hope that this insight spurs future work that will clarify the general physical constraints obeyed by natural selection in nonequilibrium systems.

That’s the last paragraph of the closing remarks on the paper. It’s a little bit wordy, but basically it’s saying there’s a connection between heat input, organisation, and how efficiently the incoming heat is distributed away. So when you have an enclosed system, like Earth,  and you shine a light, like the Sun (or any other energy source), on it, we shouldn’t be surprised that self-replication occurs; it seems that it’s natural for molecules and atoms to rearrange themselves into spontaneously self-replicating machines that distribute energy better (i.e. increase the entropy) when they are provided with enough energy. And we have some maths to prove it!

Anyway, that’s my understanding of it. It’s a pretty technical paper for a layperson like me, so I’m sure I haven’t covered it perfectly.


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