“How did life begin? Most things in the universe aren't alive, and yet if you trace the evolutionary history of plants and animals back far enough, you will find that, at some point, neither were we. Scientists have wrestled with the problem through the ages, and yet they still don’t agree on what kind of answer they are even looking for. But in 2013, at just 30 years old, physicist Jeremy England published a paper that has utterly upended the ongoing study of life’s origins.
In Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things (Basic Books, 2020), England presents, for the first time for a general audience, his groundbreaking theory of dissipative adaptation. Described simply, in any disordered system, matter clumps together and breaks apart mostly randomly. But some of the clumps that form momentarily dissipate more energy, and these structures are less likely to fall apart. Over time, they become better at both withstanding the disorder surrounding them and creating copies of themselves. From this deep insight, grounded in thermodynamics, England isolates the emergence of the first life-like behaviors. As he shows, rather than being a stroke of miraculous luck, life-like fine-tuning can emerge in matter under a variety of fairly generic experimental conditions.
In this fascinating account, England walks readers through a range of different concepts in physics and biology to sketch out his novel description of how life might emerge. One of the beauties of his approach is the way it matches recognizably with the messy complexity of the everyday world, from the way sleet slides down a windshield in cold rain to how salt and pepper grains dance together in a pan of heated oil.
But that is not the whole story. While the difference between being alive or not may seem as obvious as night and day, physics does not in fact make a clear distinction. That, as England argues, is a matter of perspective, and throughout the book he describes what he sees as the remarkable synergy between the account of life’s origins given by physics, and the account given in the Hebrew Bible. In so doing, England reckons with what, if anything, science can really tell us about life’s great mysteries.
Full of scientific and philosophical insight, Every Life is on Fire is a singular book from one of the most exciting physicists of his generation.
Jeremy England is senior director in artificial intelligence at GlaxoSmithKline, principal research scientist at Georgia Tech, and is the former Thomas D. & Virginia W. Cabot Career Development Associate Professor of Physics at MIT. He was a Rhodes Scholar, a Hertz Fellow, and was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 Rising Stars in Science. He lives in Brookline, MA.
Galina Limorenko is a post-doctoral candidate in Neuroscience with a focus on biochemistry and molecular biology of neurodegenerative diseases at EPFL in Switzerland. You can reach her at [email protected]
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