75 years after Erwin Schrödinger's prescient description of something like DNA, we still don't know the "laws of life."
- 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.
How do you get usable phosphorus into a system? A new study suggests lightning can do the trick.
- A chance discovery in suburban Illinois may change how we understand the dawn of life.
- Among other things, life needs water-soluble phosphorus, which was hard to come by 3.5 billion years back.
- This finding may imply that life has more opportunities to begin on other worlds than previously supposed.
Even the youngest child often wonders where they came from. For many scientists, a group of people known for retaining their childlike wonder, the question naturally evolves to asking how life itself originated on Earth. As is often the case when working with questions about the Earth billions of years ago, those trying to answer this one have access to a limited amount of data.
Now, a chance finding from a lightning strike in Illinois may reshape how we understand the beginnings of life on this planetand worlds beyond.
In the beginning, there were a lot of meteorite impacts and lightning strikes
Phosphorous is an important chemical for life on Earth, cells use it to help build DNA and RNA and it is required for several other important functions. There is plenty of phosphorous on Earth, but not all of it is water-soluble. It is thought that much of the phosphorus on Earth three and a half billion years ago, about the time when life first appeared, was trapped in minerals that can not dissolve in water. Given how important water is for life on Earth, this was an obstacle to the rise of life.
Until very recently, the leading theory about where most of the soluble phosphorous came from credited meteorites, many of which have small amounts of the stuff. However, this theory always had problems. The number of meteorites hitting the early Earth, while high, is thought to have fallen drastically after the event which is theorized to have created the moon. The problem gets worse over time, with fewer and fewer expected impacts as the solar system stabilized.
Additionally, meteorite impacts are often catastrophic events more often known for ending life than helping to start it. The amount of phosphorous that could arrive this way is also limited, with the heat and trauma of impact potentially vaporizing much of the stuff and leaving a pittance readily accessible in the environment.
This is where the chance finding in Illinois comes in. In 2016, a hunk of fulgurite, a clump of fused sediment created by a lightning strike, was found in Glen Ellyn, a small Chicago suburb. The sample was given to the nearby Wheaton College.
A team of researchers from the University of Leeds examined the specimen as part of an investigation into the formation of fulgurite, but were surprised to discover that it contained a large amount of schreibersite, a water-soluble phosphate mineral.
Lead author and Ph.D. candidate Benjamin Hess explained how this find might alter theories on how water-soluble phosphates came into being billions of years ago:
"Most models for how life may have formed on Earth's surface invoke meteorites which carry small amounts of schreibersite. Our work finds a relatively large amount of schreibersite in the studied fulgurite. Lightning strikes Earth frequently, implying that the phosphorus needed for the origin of life on Earth's surface does not rely solely on meteorite hits."
Their findings were published in Nature Communications and can be read in their entirety here.
Okay, this is cool and all, but how can we possibly use this information?
In addition to shedding light on the Earth's past environment and how it changed over time, this finding might also aid the search for life on other planets.
Lead author Mr. Hess speculated that the finding "also means that the formation of life on other Earth-like planets remains possible long after meteorite impacts have become rare."
This is important because, as co-author Dr. Jason Harvey explains:
"The early bombardment is a once in a solar system event. As planets reach their mass, the delivery of more phosphorus from meteors becomes negligible. Lightning, on the other hand, is not such a one-off event. If atmospheric conditions are favourable for the generation of lightning, elements essential to the formation of life can be delivered to the surface of a planet. This could mean that life could emerge on Earth-like planets at any point in time."
While these speculations presume that alien life forms will require the same substances we do to exist, the discovery of a new source of usable phosphorus is an exciting find for those interested in alien worlds and in the early geology or biology of Earth. While we might never know precisely where the phosphorous used in the first life form came from, this discovery will help to make sense of where we came from and where we might find others like us out amongst the stars.
Did America's collective mental health get worse (and then better) after the first COVID-19 lockdown?
- According to a new study, there was an influx of internet searches for mental health symptoms during the beginning of the pandemic, and this has slowly trended downwards.
- Researchers looked at whether mitigation policies correlated with Google searches for terms associated with depression and anxiety between January and June of 2020. Additionally, they monitored search terms for in-home activities.
- While searches for antidepressants and suicide did rise when social distancing measures were being implemented, research shows the search terms exercise and cooking also rose.
The beginning of COVID-19 in America:
- On January 21, 2020, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) confirmed the first case of CoV-SARS-2 (COVID-19) in the United States.
- On February 3, 2020 (three days after the World Health Organization declared a Global Health Emergency), a public health emergency was declared in the United States.
- A little over a month later, on March 13, 2020, a national emergency was declared.
- Over the next few months, various parts of the world (including the United States) would implement various levels of precautions: stay-at-home orders and restrictions to try to curb the spread of the virus.
- By the end of May 2020, the United States COVID-19 death toll passed 100,000.
Within four months, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, and our society was faced with unprecedented circumstances. (For a full timeline of COVID-19 in America, click here.) While researchers were hard at work attempting to learn more information about the virus and potentially come up with a vaccine, the mental health toll of the pandemic became noticeable.
According to a new study, there was an influx of internet searches for mental health symptoms during the beginning of the pandemic, and this has slowly trended downwards.
Study co-author Bita Fayaz Farkhad, PhD., explains to Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Learning Network: "We wanted to study how serious the mental health impact of the mitigation phase was during the initial COVID-19 outbreak last spring. Did it go beyond people feeling anxious or disheartened? Was it long-lasting, and did it increase suicide ideation and the need for medical treatment for depression?"
Mental health internet searches throughout the COVID-19 pandemic
This is one of many studies that have examined the mental health impact of COVID-19 isolation orders.
Photo by Maridav on Adobe Stock
In this study, researchers looked at whether mitigation policies correlated with Google searches for terms associated with depression and anxiety. Additionally, they monitored search terms for in-home activities. Researchers covered the time span from January 2020 to June 2020.
Two previous studies have examined the mental health effects of stay-at-home orders.
The first study (Hamermesh, 2020) used a simulation where time spent alone from the 2012-2013 American Time Use Survey forecasted negative impacts of the stay-at-home orders on happiness.
The second study (Brodeur et al,. 2020) examined the effects of the stay-at-home orders on mental health symptoms related to searches on Google. In this case, there were reported increases in searches relating to the following terms:
In this study, limited social contact had people searching terms such as "isolation" and "worry."
Findings from this study indicated that social limits (on restaurants and bars, for example) and stay-at-home orders correlated with immediate increases in searches for the terms "isolation" and "worry" - but the effects within a few weeks.
The beginning of the pandemic showed significant spikes in mental health symptom searches.
"At the outset of the pandemic, consistent with prior research, social distancing policies correlated with a spike in searches about how to deal with isolation and worry, which shouldn't be surprising," said co-author Dolores Albarracín, Ph.D. "Generally speaking, if you have a pandemic or an economic shock, that's going to produce its own level of anxiety, depression, and negative feelings, and we had both with COVID-19."
Within two to four weeks of peaking, however, such searches tapered off, the study showed.
Experts weigh in: time spent at home could be beneficial.
Why would mental health-related searches taper off when the pandemic was still raging on? This study found that more time spent with family (or working from home, taking up new hobbies due to isolation) because of the stay-at-home orders could have lead to improvements in health and may counteract any potential negative health effect of the isolation policies.
It's also important to note that not all changes in mental health searches could be in response to the isolation policies being enforced. Historically, infectious diseases have been responsible for the greatest human death tolls and function as a massive stressor on society as a whole.
Both positive and negative Google searches rose during the pandemic.
While searches for "antidepressants" and "suicide" did rise at times when social distancing measures were being implemented, research shows the search terms "exercise" and "cooking" also rose. This suggests that people were actively searching for ways to combat the negative feelings the isolation measures brought out.
What can 'behaviorism' teach us about ourselves?
In recent years, such habitual actions have become an arena for self-improvement: bookshelves are saturated with bestsellers about 'life hacks', 'life design' and how to 'gamify' our long-term projects, promising everything from enhanced productivity to a healthier diet and huge fortunes. These guides vary in scientific accuracy, but they tend to depict habits as routines that follow a repeated sequence of behaviors, into which we can intervene to set ourselves on a more desirable track.
The problem is that this account has been bleached of much of its historical richness. Today's self-help books have in fact inherited a highly contingent version of habit – specifically, one that arises in the work of early 20th-century psychologists such as B F Skinner, Clark Hull, John B Watson and Ivan Pavlov. These thinkers are associated with behaviorism, an approach to psychology that prioritizes observable, stimulus-response reactions over the role of inner feelings or thoughts. The behaviorists defined habits in a narrow, individualistic sense; they believed that people were conditioned to respond automatically to certain cues, which produced repeated cycles of action and reward.
The behaviorist image of habit has since been updated in light of contemporary neuroscience. For example, the fact that the brain is plastic and changeable allows habits to inscribe themselves in our neural wiring over time by forming privileged connections between brain regions. The influence of behaviorism has enabled researchers to study habits quantitatively and rigorously. But it has also bequeathed a flattened notion of habit that overlooks the concept's wider philosophical implications.
Philosophers used to look at habits as ways of contemplating who we are, what it means to have faith, and why our daily routines reveal something about the world at large. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the terms hexis and ethos – both translated today as 'habit' – to study stable qualities in people and things, especially regarding their morals and intellect. Hexis denotes the lasting characteristics of a person or thing, like the smoothness of a table or the kindness of a friend, which can guide our actions and emotions. A hexis is a characteristic, capacity or disposition that one 'owns'; its etymology is the Greek word ekhein, the term for ownership. For Aristotle, a person's character is ultimately a sum of their hexeis (plural).
An ethos, on the other hand, is what allows one to develop hexeis. It is both a way of life and the basic calibre of one's personality. Ethos is what gives rise to the essential principles that help to guide moral and intellectual development. Honing hexeis out of an ethos thus takes both time and practice. This version of habit fits with the tenor of ancient Greek philosophy, which often emphasized the cultivation of virtue as a path to the ethical life.
Millennia later, in medieval Christian Europe, Aristotle's hexis was Latinised into habitus. The translation tracks a shift away from the virtue ethics of the Ancients towards Christian morality, by which habit acquired distinctly divine connotations. In the middle ages, Christian ethics moved away from the idea of merely shaping one's moral dispositions, and proceeded instead from the belief that ethical character was handed down by God. In this way, the desired habitus should become entwined with the exercise of Christian virtue.
The great theologian Thomas Aquinas saw habit as a vital component of spiritual life. According to his Summa Theologica (1265-1274), habitus involved a rational choice, and led the true believer to a sense of faithful freedom. By contrast, Aquinas used consuetudo to refer to the habits we acquire that inhibit this freedom: the irreligious, quotidian routines that do not actively engage with faith. Consuetudo signifies mere association and regularity, whereas habitus conveys sincere thoughtfulness and consciousness of God. Consuetudo is also where we derive the terms 'custom' and 'costume' – a lineage which suggests that the medievals considered habit to extend beyond single individuals.
For the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, these ancient and medieval interpretations of habit were far too limiting. Hume conceived of habit via what it empowers and enables us to do as human beings. He came to the conclusion that habit is the 'cement of the universe', which all 'operations of the mind … depend on'. For instance, we might throw a ball in the air and watch it rise and descend to Earth. By habit, we come to associate these actions and perceptions – the movement of our limb, the trajectory of the ball – in a way that eventually lets us grasp the relationship between cause and effect. Causality, for Hume, is little more than habitual association. Likewise language, music, relationships – any skills we use to transform experiences into something that's useful are built from habits, he believed. Habits are thus crucial instruments that enable us to navigate the world and to understand the principles by which it operates. For Hume, habit is nothing less than the 'great guide of human life'.
It's clear that we ought to see habits as more than mere routines, tendencies and ticks. They encompass our identities and ethics; they teach us how to practice our faiths; if Hume is to believed, they do no less than bind the world together. Seeing habits in this new-yet-old way requires a certain conceptual and historical about-face, but this U-turn offers much more than shallow self-help. It should show us that the things we do every day aren't just routines to be hacked, but windows through which we might glimpse who we truly are.
New research identifies 16 different COVID-19 personality types and the lessons we can learn from this global pandemic.
- New research by Mimi E. Lam at the University of Bergen explores the different "personality types" that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- According to Lam, recognizing various COVID-19 identities can refine forecasts of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and impact.
- Global Solutions Initiative, Population Matters, and AME explore how the world (and society) has changed due to COVID-19.
Are you a complier or non-complier personality type?
New research by Mimi E. Lam at the University of Bergen (Human and Social Sciences Communications) explores the different "personality types" that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lam explains to Eurekalert: "...the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that we are not immune to each other. To unite in our fight against the pandemic, it is important to recognize the basic dignity of all and value the human diversity currently dividing us."
According to Lam, "Only then, can we foster societal resilience and an ethical COVID-19 agenda. This would pave the way for other global commons challenges whose impacts are less immediate, but no less dire for humanity."
There are 16 different COVID-19 personality types, and they include the following:
- Deniers — Individuals who downplay the viral threat and promote a kind of "business as usual" lifestyle.
- Spreaders — Individuals who believe spreading the virus could actually be positive. These are individuals who believe in "herd immunity" and that passing the virus around will eventually allow things to return to normal.
- Harmers — Individuals who intentionally attempt to harm others by spreading the virus (via coughing or spitting, not wearing masks, licking various public surfaces, etc.).
- Realists — Individuals who recognize the reality (and potential harm) of spreading the virus and attempt to adjust their behaviors to not spread the virus.
- Worriers — Individuals who stay informed and safe to manage their uncertainty and fear. These are also individuals who will have a lot of anxiety over the current state of the virus at all times.
- Contemplators — Individuals who have taken "quarantine times" to isolate and reflect on their own lives. These are individuals who may attempt to better themselves (focusing on new hobbies or skills) during times of isolation.
- Hoarders — Individuals who panic-buy and hoard products (such as toilet paper) in an attempt to quell their panic and worry over the spreading of the virus.
- Invincibles — Individuals who believe themselves to be immune to the virus. These are also individuals who claim a kind of "if I get sick, I get sick" kind of attitude, not taking time to reflect on the idea that they could be carriers of the virus, spreading it to others.
- Rebels — Individuals who defiantly ignore social distancing measures and various other rules put into place to protect the general public.
- Blamers — Those who fault others for their fears and frustrations.
- Exploiters — Those who attempt to exploit the current situation (taking advantage of vulnerable people/situations) for power, profit, or brutality.
- Innovators — Individuals who attempt to design or repurposes resources in an attempt to fight the pandemic and contribute to society.
- Supporters — Individuals who show support and solidarity to others around them in regards to fending off the virus or supporting loved ones.
- Altruists — Individuals who help the vulnerable, elderly, and isolated.
- Warriors — Individuals (such as front-line support workers and health care workers) who combat COVID-19 on the front lines, facing the harsh and grim realities of a global pandemic on a larger scale.
- Veterans — Individuals who have experienced a previous pandemic (such as SARS or MERS) and willingly comply with restrictions.
According to Lam and her research, recognizing various COVID-19 identities can refine forecasts of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and impact. These viral identities can reflect values, social identities, situational contexts, and risk tolerances. Lam suggests that to forecast viral transmission within populations (accounting for different responses), these identified viral behaviors can be clustered by their "compliance" efforts.
- Non-compilers are individuals who fall into the following categories: Deniers, Harmers, Invincibles, and Rebels.
- Partial compliers would be individuals who fall into the categories of: Spreaders, Blamers, and Exploiters.
- Compliers would be individuals who are in the categories of Realists, Worriers, Contemplators, Hoarders, Innovators, Supporters, Altruists, Warriors, and Veterans.
Lam suggests that liberal democracies need an ethical policy agenda with three priorities:
- Recognize the diversity of individuals
- Deliberate and negotiate value trade-offs
- Promote public buy-in, trust, and compliance
By projecting different impacts in COVID-19 transmission and deaths and then correlating those with variable behavioral responses such as the ones listed above, we can reveal the benefits of not only flattening the viral curve but shifting our behavioral curve in a joint human effort to induce more adaptive responses to the pandemic. More research needs to be conducted in this area.
What has COVID-19 taught us as a society?
Image by Corona Borealis on Adobe Stock
The Global Solutions Initiative outlines a few questions and concerns that humankind has been faced with since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020:
- We have been confronted with the true uncertainty and vulnerability of human life and our very existence.
- We have been made to face existential questions - what are we here for, what do we want to accomplish? Who are the people that matter most to us?
Population Matters outlines a few more daunting questions about humankind's relationship with nature:
- What is the link between population growth, environmental destruction, and pandemics?
- How has our society's exponential rise in consumption, trade, and population pressure driven a rapid increase in the risk of pandemics?
AME outlines some essential things this pandemic has taught us about humanity and life:
- The meat industry has played a large hand in transmitting this virus. According to a recent study, SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats and has likely been transmitted to human through a scaled mammal called a pangolin (which are highly traded in China despite being deemed illegal).
- Nature can recover from our destructive efforts. Since the pandemic, the world has seen coyotes on the streets, wild boar roaming around in Barcelona, more bees, and rare wildflowers in the UK.
- Many in-office employees can work from home. This pandemic has altered the way many businesses run and will continue to run in the future. This could cause less pollution and have positive impacts on the environment.
The research conducted by Lam and subsequent research on how COVID-19 is impacting society can help us grow and adapt and perhaps become better equipped to deal with global pandemics in the future.