Inside the struggle to define life

Ian Sample writes:

All the brain cells of life on Earth still cannot explain life on Earth. Its most intelligent species has uncovered the building blocks of matter, read countless genomes and watched spacetime quiver as black holes collide. It understands much of how living creatures work, but not how they came to be. There is no agreement, even, on what life is.

The conundrum of life is so fundamental that to solve it would rank among the most important achievements of the human mind. But for all scientists’ efforts – and there have been plenty – the big questions remain. If biology is defined as the study of life, on this it has failed to deliver.

But enlightenment may come from another direction. Rather than biology, some scientists are now looking to physics for answers, in particular the physics of information. Buried in the rules that shape information lie the secrets of life and perhaps even the reason for our existence.

That, at least, is the bold proposal from Paul Davies, a prominent physicist who explores the idea in his forthcoming book, The Demon in the Machine. Published next week, it continues a theme of thinking that landed Davies the $1m Templeton prize for contributions to religious thought and inquiry.

As director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, Davies is well placed to spot the next wave that will crash over science. What he sees on the horizon is a revolution that brings physics and biology together through the common science of information.

“The basic hypothesis is this,” Davies says. “We have fundamental laws of information that bring life into being from an incoherent mish-mash of chemicals. The remarkable properties we associate with life are not going to come about by accident.”

The proposal takes some unpacking. Davies believes that the laws of nature as we know them today are insufficient to explain what life is and how it came about. We need to find new laws, he says, or at least new principles, which describe how information courses around living creatures. Those rules may not only nail down what life is, but actively favour its emergence. [Continue reading…]

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