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Monday, April 20, 2015

Is the universe organized to produce life?

A friend recently sent me an article entitled "The Man Who May One-Up Darwin" by Meghan Walsh for OZY (http://www.ozy.com/rising-stars-and-provocateurs/the-man-who-may-one-up-darwin/39217.article). It is about a young physicist named Jeremy England who has proposed a new theory about what may be behind the formation of life (the title of the piece is a little misleading - England accepts Darwinian Evolution). Walsh explains England's theory this way: "The 101 version of his big idea is this: Under the right conditions, a random group of atoms will self-organize, unbidden, to more effectively use energy. Over time and with just the right amount of, say, sunlight, a cluster of atoms could come remarkably close to what we call life. In fact, here’s a thought: Some things we consider inanimate actually may already be 'alive.' It all depends on how we define life, something England’s work might prompt us to reconsider. 'People think of the origin of life as being a rare process,' says Vijay Pande, a Stanford chemistry professor. 'Jeremy’s proposal makes life a consequence of physical laws, not something random.'”

Natalie Wolchover also wrote a piece about Jeremy and his theory for Quanta in January of 2014 entitled "A New Physics Theory of Life" (https://www.quantamagazine.org/20140122-a-new-physics-theory-of-life/). Ms. Wolchover wrote: "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." Continuing, she said that England "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." As Wolchover points out, England's thesis is centered on the Second Law of Thermodynamics (or The Law of Increasing Entropy). For those of a more scientific/technical bent, Jeremy's original paper (complete with mathematical equations) entitled "Statistical physics of self-replication" and published in the American Institute of Physics' The Journal of Chemical Physics can be accessed at the following address: http://www.englandlab.com/uploads/7/8/0/3/7803054/2013jcpsrep.pdf

What does all of this have to do with God? Interestingly, Walsh reveals in her article that England strongly identifies with the Jewish religion of his mother. She goes on to point out that Judaism (unlike most Evangelical/Fundamentalist sects of Christianity) does not necessarily believe that the theory of evolution is incompatible with a belief in God. The bottom line: England apparently believes that there is a place for God in all of this. I can see that: If the universe is organized to produce life, isn't it reasonable to suggest that Someone designed it to do so? From my perspective, England's theory has the potential to upend our notions about what it means to be the Creator.

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