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Karen Chaffee

Duane asked me to post more interesting stuff from “Life of the Cosmos” By Lee Smolin. Here is an outline of one chapter, “What is Life” page 141 to 160. There are interesting ideas contained.141-142. Ideas of Newton and Plato are reviewed. Smolin says their ideas lack the idea of evolution, change. Plato and Newton thought a God outside the universe kept the system from going towards disorder. Boltzmann said that life is too improbable to occur by chance. Boltzmann concluded that our life is a transient excursion from normal uniform equilibrium that occured only because the universe in infinite in time and space, so all configurations no matter how wildly improbably have to happen sometime. (Brian Green said something like this too, if I recall.) Smolin regarded Boltzmann’s answer to this quandary as inadequate Smolin instead wants a science that would have life as a natural inevitable outcome, not a transient occurrence of incredibly unlikely odds. Smolin says that a galaxy or even the universe as a whole does not equaly the complexity of one single cell. So he says we may not pronounce the universe “alive” (page 145.) (However, he says in chapter one that life can’t exist in a dead universe hmmm.) Instead, he wants to describe the characteristics of living things, and go from there. (Same idea we had!) P145 He gives the biological definition of life, which is similar to the one Ursula gave, so I won’t repeat it. The problem, he says: this definition does not say why things with these characteristics exist in our universe. A better definition would say Life is interconnected. (James McAlister will like this.) Smolin says the biological definition he gives (similar to Ursula’s, as I said) would allow for a solitary living thing, which he says is not possible. (Nor can there be only one species, he says) So, the biological definition of life that will be useful to biologists deciding, for example, if a particular coral is alive or not is not useful for our discussion. He discusses the Gaia hypotheses at length p 148-151 (saying it’s validity is still unsettled but it is a good scientific, plausible, testable idea, which has stood up to testing but not yet so enough to be confirmed (this is written in 1997). He says he thus doesn’t understand why it (the Gaia hypotheses) is controversial. He insists a definition of life must include interconnections. He discusses thermodynamics (as I related in my first post). The universe runs in the direction of disorder (p. 142. ) He discusses self-organization, p 152 and notes that a flow of energy IN is needed for self-organization. The second law (i.e. entropy increases) holds for the universe as a whole, not an isolated system like the Earth. For example, the configuration of DNA is improbable. In a living cell, random motions break DNA and proteins; the cell reconstructs itself using energy. The energy must come in a useful form. (And must be able to leave as well!) Here on Earth, for example, we have a source of energy as photons (the sun) and we have cold places to ditch our energy. (P 153) (Again, he stresses, our universe is not in thermal equilibrium, very important to him!!) So to him, life requires a flow of energy in from a high energy area and then OUT again to an even lower energy area. In such an area, organization can thrive and even be favored. Also, there must be the potential for organization. (i.e., There must be atoms) This is a good area for physicists to study, he says. People who have been looking for theories of self-organizing systems are: (p. 154) Per Bak, John Holland, Stuart Kauffman, Harold Morowitz, Ilya Prigogine. He discusses. Morowitz and Prigogine have found/studied systems that have an energy-in energy-out flow and that reach non-equilibrium states. Morowitz studies chemical reactions and says energy-in-out cycles are more fundamental than life, and may be the first step in biological life, or perhaps biological life may be understood as a subset of such processes. (Smolin discusses the cell membrane here in a general discussion of system boundaries, and this is something of importance to my own thinking, so I will return to this in a separate post.) Smolin calls these ‘boundaried’ systems that contain non-equilibrium states with energy-in-and-out processes “Self-organized non-equilibrium systems” and gives a longer definition of such that I won’t replicate (but I do urge you to read the book!) (Some characteristic from his definition–the state is maintained for an extended time and is stabilized against perturbation.) He says a spiral galaxy (see my first post) fits the definition. (But he says a spiral galaxy is not “alive’) Life is a subset of these systems. Life needs three more characteristics, which I had in my first post.a self organized non-equlibrium system such thatthe processes are governed by a program which is stored symbolically andIt can reproduce itself, including the program (p 156)(Fancifully, He says the biosphere could be called alive once it spreads to other planets, re the Gaia hypotheses, according to his criteria) He says he doesn’t think you can call the universe as a whole alive, because the laws of nature are not an information program that can be replicated symbolically An information program must be able to be specified by a finite amount of information. This also rules out the laws of the universe, because he doesn’t feel that this must be so. (I.e. that they must be specified by a finite amount of information.) Remember, he is a mathematician. Also, you must have a flow of energy in and out. (He doesn’t mention the idea of flow from another universe as we discussed) He says that the self-organized systems in the universe are transitory because you can’t have them forever in a universe that will tend towards thermal equilibrium. But he again stresses that the non-uniformity of our present universe is essential for life, and gives the quote I made in my first post: It seems then that life is situated in a nested hierarchy of self-organized systems … (from) local ecologies to the galaxy. Each of the levels are non-equilibrium systems that owe their existence to … self organization …. Is there a sense in which the universe as a whole could be a non-equlibrium self organized system? Page 159. In this sense, life is not a statistical fluke, because self-organized non-equilibrium systems permeate our universe on every scale. He says if we construct a picture of cosmology based on non-equilibrium, we might see life within as natural. This system would be “liberated from a crippling duality” where outside intelligence imposes order on chaos.