What is life? Why cells and atoms haven’t answered the question.
75 years after Erwin Schrödinger's prescient description of something like DNA, we still don't know the "laws of life."
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun. Frank's computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed advanced supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and how they die. A self-described “evangelist of science," he is the author of four books and the co-founder of 13.8, where he explores the beauty and power of science in culture with physicist Marcelo Gleiser.
- Erwin Schrödinger's 1944 book "What Is Life?" revolutionized how physicists thought about the 'laws of life.' Schrödinger anticipated how DNA would hold life's blueprints.
- In recent years, however, a new path forward has appeared that holds a unique promise. Rather than reduce biology to physics, the new direction would transform them both.
- Scientists working across domains now think that understanding life requires putting a new actor on to the stage and letting it take the lead: the flow of information.
In 1944, Erwin Schrödinger was already considered one of the greatest physicists of his generation, having discovered quantum physics' most essential equation for describing atomic-level reality. But being intellectually restless, Schrödinger was ready to take on an even more difficult subject: the nature of organisms. What was it, he asked, that makes living systems different from non-living ones? The results of his thinking became one of the most essential books in the exciting and yet dangerous territory lying between physics and biology. That book's question was also its title, "What Is Life?". Its ideas are worth looking at now because more than 75 years after its publication, there are stunning new directions opening up toward an answer that both affirms and goes far beyond Schrödinger original vision.
Left: "What is Life" by Erwin Schrödinger, Second Reprint, 1946. Right: Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist Dr. Erwin Schrödinger addresses the 5th World Power Conference in Vienna, Austria, 1956.
"What Is Life?" focused on the need to find the underlying physical principles that make living systems behave so differently. The hope had always been to find "laws of life" similar to what has been found for the fundamental laws of nature in other areas of physics. Looking at life from a physicists' viewpoint, Schrödinger saw that one of its most compelling properties was the defeat of the omnipresent second law of thermodynamics. The second law states that the evolution of any physical system always tends toward states of maximum disorder (i.e., maximum entropy). But at the local level of an organism's body, life manages to create and maintain staggering degrees of order. It beats back chaos, for a while at least. Thus, somehow, life manifested what Schrödinger called "negentropy" or negative entropy.
Being one of the founders of quantum mechanics, which is the science of the microworld, Schrödinger also thought deeply about life's mechanics at the molecular level. Here, he was prescient, famously conjecturing that within cells there must reside an "aperiodic crystal" that held the information needed to transmit heritable traits from one generation to the next, allowing evolution to work. By aperiodic crystal, Schrödinger meant a molecule that had a stable, regular (i.e., repeatable) structure. If it was too regular and repeatable, however, you couldn't use it to code a living organism's structure. So 'aperiodic' meant 'kinda, sorta repeating.' A decade later, Francis Crick and James Watson credited this conjecture as their inspiration for using Rosalind Franklin's X-ray data to discover DNA as the blueprint for life.
So yeah, "What Is Life?" was a really, really important book.
But as powerful as the book was, 75 years after its publication no foundational physical laws for life have ever been found. There is no F=ma or E=mc2 or even a Schrödinger's equation for living systems. In spite of decades of searching, physicists have been unable to fully "reduce" the domains of the biologist (cells and organs and ecologies) into the domains of their own (atoms and energy and forces). In recent years, however, a new path forward has appeared that holds a unique promise. Rather than reduce biology to physics, the new direction would transform them both.
The focus on networks of information flows means its laws may be emergent. Life's laws would not, therefore, be encoded in the laws of quarks.
What has become clear to scientists like Paul Davies, Sara Walker, and Lee Cronin, who are working across domains, is that understanding life requires putting a new actor onto the stage and letting it take the lead. That actor is information. Rather than focusing on the mechanics of life—meaning how the laws of atoms can be built up into a living organism—researchers are beginning to see that what really matters is how atoms and molecules become conduits for complex flows of information. Rather than just thinking about forces or energy exchanges between molecular parts, the key becomes seeing the whole; seeing how these parts can be seen as something more, something that only emerges when information becomes important to a system.
Why is this new perspective so radical? What's most important is it's not reductive. That means it does not reduce life to "just" the laws governing quarks or whatever quarks are made of. Without doubt, life is a physical system, but by creating and then harnessing intricate ballets of information flows, life does something amazing: it creates. The focus on networks of information flows means its laws may be emergent. Life's laws would not, therefore, be encoded in the laws of quarks. Instead, they only emerge when enough matter is brought together in the right conditions for networks of information flows to become possible. That's when novelty enters the universe.
The other radical consequence of seeing life as a dance of information that rides matter is that this emergence continues upwards in scale. Just as new rules appear for cells, so to do they appear for collections of cells in animals or plants. And then even newer rules appear higher up on the level of ecosystems made of many animals and plants. At even higher levels still, new laws and structures must emerge in the creation of social organizations via ants, tribes of chimps, and even global technological cultures.
We'll be exploring this information flow perspective on life a lot more in the coming months, but for now it's enough to just recognize one of the key starting points. Schrödinger's "What Is Life?" was a remarkable first step because he saw information playing a central role in those aperiodic crystals. But what he could not have seen was how the focus on information flows would transform not just the answer but the very question that he posed. Because if you are going to focus on information, the next question you'll have to address is who or what knows that information. We'll leave that question for another time.
Why haven't we found aliens? Because we don't know what life is.
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.
Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Why make it more complicated?
- The Epicureans were some of the world's first materialists and argued that there is neither God, nor gods, nor spirits, but only atoms and the physical world.
- They believed that life was about finding pleasure and avoiding pain and that both were achieved by minimizing our desires for things.
- The Epicurean Four Step Remedy is advice on how we can face the world, achieve happiness, and not worry as much as we do.
Self-help books are consistently on the best-seller lists across the world. We can't seem to get enough of happiness advice, wellness gurus, and life coaches. But, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. The Ancient Greeks were into the self-help business millennia before the likes of Dale Carnegie and Mark Manson.
Four schools of ancient Greek philosophy
From the 3rd century BCE until the birth of Jesus, Greek philosophy was locked into an ideological war. Four rival schools emerged, each proclaiming loudly that they — alone — had the secret to a happy and fulfilled life. These schools were: Stoicism, Cynicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism. Each had their advocates and even had a kind of PR battle to get people to sign up to their side. They were trying to sell happiness.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives.
Many of us are familiar with Stoicism, a topic I covered recently, because it forms the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy. Skepticism and Cynicism have become watered down or warped variations of their original forms. (I will cover these in future articles.) Today, we focus on the most underappreciated of these schools, the Epicureans. In their philosophy, we can find a surprisingly modern and easy-to-follow "Four Part Remedy" to life.
Epicureans: The first atheists
The Epicureans were some of history's first materialists. They believed that the world was made up only of atoms (and void), and that everything is simply a particular composition of these atoms. There were no gods, spirits, or souls (or, at most, they're irrelevant to the world as we encounter it). They thought that there was no afterlife or immortality to be had, either. Death is just a relocation of atoms. This atheism and materialism was what the Christian Church would later come to despise, and after centuries of being villainized by priests, popes, and church doctrine, the Epicureans fell out of fashion.
In the atomistic, worldly philosophy of the Epicureans, all there is to life is to get as much pleasure as you can and avoid pain. This isn't to become some rampant hedonist, staggering from opium dens to brothels, but concerns the higher pleasures of the mind.
Epicurus, himself, believed that pleasure was defined as the satisfying of a desire, such as when we drink a glass of water when we're really thirsty. But, he also argued that desires themselves were painful since they, by definition, meant longing and anguish. Thirst is a desire, and we don't like being thirsty. True contentment, then, could not come from creating and indulging pointless wants but must instead come from minimizing desire altogether. What would be the point of setting ourselves new targets? These are just new desires that we must make efforts to satisfy. Thus, minimizing pain meant minimizing desires, and the bare minimum desires were those required to live.
The Four Part Remedy
Given that Epicureans were determined to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, they developed a series of rituals and routines designed to help. One of the best known (not least because we've lost so much written by the Epicureans) was the so-called "Four Part Remedy." These were four principles they believed we ought to accept so that we might find solace and be rid of existential and spiritual pain:
1. Don't fear God. Remember, everything is just atoms. You won't go to hell, and you won't go to heaven. The "afterlife" will be nothingness, in just the same way as when you had no awareness whatsoever of the dinosaurs or Cleopatra. There was simply nothing before you existed, and death is a great expanse of the same timeless, painless void.
2. Don't worry about death. This is a natural corollary of Step 1. With no body, there is no pain. In death, we lose all of our desires and, along with them, suffering and discontent. It's striking how similar in tone this sounds to a lot of Eastern, especially Buddhist, philosophy at the time.
3. What is good is easy to get. Pleasure comes in satisfying desires, specifically the basic, biological desires required to keep us alive. Anything more complicated than this, or harder to achieve, just creates pain. There's water to be drunk, food to be eaten, and beds to sleep in. That's all you need.
4. What is terrible is easy to endure. Even if it is difficult to satisfy the basic necessities, remember that pain is short-lived. We're rarely hungry for long, and sicknesses most often will be cured easily enough (and this was written 2300 years before antibiotics). All other pains often can be mitigated by pleasures to be had. If basic biological necessities can't be met, then you die — but we already established there is nothing to fear from death.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives. It doesn't tell us "the five things you need to do before breakfast" or "visit these ten places, and you'll never be sad again." Just like it's rival school of Stoicism, Epicureanism is all about a psychological shift of some kind.
Namely, that psychological shift is about recognizing that life doesn't need to be as complicated as we make it. At the end of the day, we're just animals with basic needs. We have the tools necessary to satisfy our desires, but when we don't, we have huge reservoirs of strength and resilience capable of enduring it all. Failing that, we still have nothing to fear because there is nothing to fear about death. When we're alive, death is nowhere near; when we're dead, we won't care.
Practical, modern, and straightforward, Epicurus offers a valuable insight to life. It's existential comfort for the materialists and atheists. It's happiness in four lines.
A new study explores how investors' behavior is affected by participating in online communities, like Reddit's WallStreetBets.
- The study found evidence that "hype" over assets is psychologically contagious among investors in online communities.
- This hype is self-perpetuating: A small group of investors hypes an asset, bringing in new investors, until growth becomes unsteady and a price crash ensues.
- The researchers suggested that these new kinds of self-organized, social media-driven investment behaviors are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Social media has reshaped human behavior in ways we're only starting to understand. The proliferation of online communities has helped spawn novel strategies for promoting political causes, conducting business, finding sex and love, and transforming culture.
Could online communities also transform behavior in the financial world?
That's one of the key questions explored in a new study published on the preprint server arXiv. Titled "Reddit's self-organised bull runs: Social contagion and asset prices," the study used discussion data from the subreddit WallStreetBets to analyze relationships between the price of stocks and "hype" among online retail investors.
Hype is nothing new in the investing world. But the researchers noted that there seems to be something novel about the short squeeze of GameStop's stock in January, when the price of the stock rose tenfold, thanks largely to self-organized retail investors from WallStreetBets.
"As academics and regulators alike grapple with the implications, many wonder whether large-scale coordination among retail investors is the new 'modus operandi,' or a one-off fluke," the researchers wrote. "We argue that this is a new manifestation of a well-established global phenomenon."
To better understand how online hype is associated with stock prices, the researchers focused on two social components of hype: contagion and consensus. Contagion refers to investors spreading interest in an asset among each other, while consensus refers to their ability to agree on whether to buy or sell an asset.
The analysis found empirical evidence that both contagion and consensus emerge in online communities like WallStreetBets. In other words, investors spread sentiments about future stock performance to other investors, and then they cohere around investment strategies.
Popularity over fundamentals
The findings suggest that an asset's popularity, not its fundamentals, is paramount to many investors.
"Our results consistently show that investors become interested in discussing an asset, not because of fundamentals, but because other users discuss it," the researchers wrote. "Subsequently, this paper tests whether an individual's sentiment about future asset performance [is] affected by those of others. We find that this is the case: people look to their peers to form an opinion about an asset's potential."
To find evidence for social contagion among online investors, the researchers compiled a large dataset of posts and comments submitted to WallStreetBets. The goal was to analyze whether investors' past comments or posts about a given stock, such as Tesla, had a predictable effect on future discussions of that asset within WallStreetBets.
After conducting a regression analysis, the results suggest that hype is socially contagious and cyclical. The cycle usually plays out like this: A small group of investors hypes an asset. This attracts a larger group of investors who join the discussions.
But eventually, too many investors have joined the discussion, and fewer new investors are buying into the hype. As investors lose interest, they spend less time discussing (or "spreading") the asset on the forum, and they turn to new opportunities. The process is similar to a virus: As enough people become infected, they reach herd immunity, and the virus (hype) dies out.
So, does this process affect the stock price, and if so, how? The researchers said it was difficult to establish causality between hype and actual market activity. After all, they didn't have access to the trading records of subscribers to WallStreetBets.
But their model did show that activity on WallStreetBets was able to explain "significant variance" in trading volumes for the most-discussed assets on the forum. This suggests that when social contagion is strong for a given asset, consensus is strong too.
On the stock chart, consensus may start off bullish (or positively): As hype spreads, there's a slow, steady run-up in price. But the growth eventually becomes unstable and is followed by a crash and a period of volatility.
"The price crash stems from panic selling, as investors turn nervous in the face of volatility," the researchers wrote.
Bad news spreads faster than good news
Interestingly, the analysis found that bearish (or negative) sentiments were significantly more contagious on WallStreetBets.
"The data demonstrates that authors who previously commented on a bearish post are 47.7% more likely to express bearish over neutral sentiments, and 18.1% less likely to express bullish sentiments over neutral sentiments. Similarly, but less markedly, authors who previously commented on at least one bullish submission are 9.4% more likely to write a bullish submission, yet 11.3% less likely to write a bearish one."
The researchers said that the changing investing climate and widely available online data offers "promising opportunities for future research."
"As social media galvanizes a larger pool of retail investors with the potential for exciting stock market gambles, it is crucial to understand how social dynamics can impact asset prices," the researchers wrote. "With the first publicly acclaimed victory of Main Street over Wall Street, in the form of the GameStop short squeeze, it is unlikely that socially-driven asset volatility will simply disappear."
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