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Lowell Gustafson

Thanks so much to Jennifer for hosting this fascinating exchange of views as we struggle to understand and articulate our best current understandings of these complex topics.

The discussion about the specific meaning  of metabolism is helpful.  Jennifer also reminds us of Eric Chaisson’s idea of energy densities.

As you remember, his estimated power densities are:

Generic Structure                        Approximate Age (10 9 year)           Average Φ m (10 − 4 watt/kg)

Galaxies (Milky Way)                       12                                                                     0.5
Stars (Sun)                                           10                                                                     2
Planets (Earth)                                     5                                                                   75
Plants (biosphere)                               3                                                                900
Animals (human body)            10 − 2                                                          20,000
Brains (human cranium)         10 − 3                                                        150,000
Society (modern culture)           0                                                                500,000

The ideas of increasing complexity and emergent properties in addition to energy densities are also often used.   Portions of the universe seem to have moved from a level of complexity best analyzed by physics, to that of chemistry, then to biology, then to ecosystems, social systems, and finally (showing my bias) the most complex level: the humanities.

It is not only that there are increasing energy densities, it is also useful to consider the alternate possible routes that these flows can take. Increased energy densities produce and sustain higher complexity.  I don’t think there are too may alternatives for electrons when H2 is formed.  The steps in increasing complexity of electrical and chemical exchanges from the emergence of atoms to communication among neurons are many and not completely understood.  Along the way, there seem to be many emergent properties.

By the time we get to humans, electrical impulses in the brain seems to be able to take a great many different paths.  The possibilities of this conversation are even more varied.  I doubt that H2 gets bored by endless repetition of movement of electrons; I doubt that flatworms get bored either.  However, we would lose interest in this discussion if new ideas were not introduced.  Boredom and interest are emergent properties in consciousness.

Only a small portion of matter becomes more complex and more conscious, while most remains at lower levels of complexity.  There are still enormous clouds of hydrogen and helium that have been floating since the Big Bang, I think.  There are still huge numbers of prokaryotes who have never found any good reason to develop greater complexity.

Most hydrogen in the universe is just floating about.  A tiny proportion of it has become able to be fascinated by this conversation.  I am grateful that I get to be among that portion.