Was Life an Inevitable Outcome of Thermodynamics?

A physicist demonstrates how life may be a predictable product of thermodynamics.

We often marvel that life on earth happened at all — there seems to be so much working against it. The luckiest of flukes. But in 2013, MIT physicist Jeremy England proposed a completely different, and shocking, idea: He suggested that life is an inevitable product of thermodynamics. Instead of being an exceptional, rare event, he told Quanta in 2014, the development of life is “as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.” He’s been conducting a pair of tests of his theory since then, and his results, published in Physical Review Letters (PRL) and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggest he’s right.


Jeremy England (KATHERINE TAYLOR, QUANTA MAGAZINE)

It’s all about how inanimate atom structures capture and release energy. England’s been testing his own formula — which is based on accepted physics — predicting that a collection of atoms driven by external energy, such as the sun or some type of chemical fuel, and surrounded by heat, will often rearrange itself to absorb and dissipate increasingly more energy. Under certain conditions, the atoms will ultimately develop the heat-exchanging characteristics of living matter. And thus, he says, “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”

Key to his theory is the second law of thermodynamics part of which is the idea that a closed system such as the universe tends to grow more disordered over time, eventually becoming an undifferentiatable, entropic equilibrium. IFL Science uses a simple analogy to describe the effect:

Think of a pool of water with three color dyes dropped in it. Initially, they remain as separate dots far apart, but over time, the colors spread out, mix, and in the end, there’s just one single color. That’s the universe; the dots, in this case, can be pockets of biological life.

David Kaplan explains the second law and some new thoughts about it.

(QUANTA MAGAZINE)

England, proposes that in systems with an external influence — such as, say, the sun offers the earth — energy imbalances can be so complex that atoms naturally rearrange themselves into architectures that can survive the chaos. The structures that they form to handle the energy may look a lot like the atomic structures of living things. Is this how life merges from chaos?

What the PRL Article Reports

The experiments, conducted by England with students Tal Kachman and Jeremy A. Owen were aimed at seeing if particles can, first of all, reorganize themselves in response to an external energy source. The scientists modeled a “toy” chemical environment of reacting Brownian particles that were periodically subjected to external energy drivers that forced chemical interactions to take place. (This process is called “forcing.) The researchers observed that particles eventually sought out the necessary chemical to construct a system structure resonating at the same frequency as the driver, thus facilitating more effective absorption of its energy.

What the PNAS Article Reports

In these more-complex experiments, England and Jordan Horowitz worked with computer simulations of a chemical network containing 25 chemicals. Running a series of simulations using random initial chemical concentrations, reaction rates, and “forcing landscapes” — sets of external energy sources and amounts — the researchers wanted to see what the final “fixed state” of the brews would be. Some settled into the expected entropic equilibrium, but other simulations, subjected to extreme, difficult environments, cycled rapidly through different arrangements in what looked very much like an attempt to arrive at the optimal structure for absorbing and emitting the energy to which they were exposed. In the paper’s abstract, England and Horowitz say this “might be recognized as examples of apparent fine-tuning.”

What Do the Experiments Mean?

The scenarios that England and his colleagues have simulated are, of course, simpler than those found in nature, falling far short of the relatively complex organism that is bacterium.

Escherichia coli rods

Still, it’s a stunning start. Says statistical physicist Michael Lässig of the PNAS paper, “This is obviously a pioneering study,” even if looks only at “a given set of rules on a relatively small system, so it’s maybe a bit early to say whether it generalizes. But the obvious interest is to ask what this means for life.”

England isn’t personally looking to get too far ahead of his results, either. “In the short term, I’m not saying this tells me a lot about what’s going in a biological system, nor even claiming that this is necessarily telling us where life as we know it came from,” he tells Quanta. He feels both problems constitute a “fraught mess” that, “I am inclined to steer clear of for now.”

But, according to engineer, physicist, and microbiologist Rahul Sarpeshkar, “What Jeremy is showing is that as long as you can harvest energy from your environment, order will spontaneously arise and self-tune.” This is a big deal all by itself. “But, ”Sarpeshkar adds, “this is about how did life first arise, perhaps — how do you get order from nothing.”

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

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  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.


Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

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