In a sunny lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two starfish fought over their prey. Overlapping arms pinned a hunk of thawing cocktail shrimp against the side of the tank. Thousands of suction cups rippled furiously against the glass as each echinoderm struggled to inch the prize toward its own maw.
The physicist Nikta Fakhri looked on with a grin. Not many physicists keep ocean life in their labs, but Fakhri has learned to care for starfish nearly as well as a marine biologist would. And now she’s expanding her menagerie; when a reporter visited recently, a couple of tanks awaited the imminent arrival of sea urchins.
Fakhri has turned to echinoderms in the hope of answering an age-old question: What is life? Or, in one modern formulation: How do the microscopic operations of proteins and cells add up to a clash between hungry starfish?
In the quest to understand how the turning of biological gears produces the unspeakably complex business of living, Fakhri found it natural to turn to physics — a field that’s adept at linking microscopic and macroscopic phenomena. Physicists have learned that temperature emerges from the motions of molecules, magnetism from the orientations of atoms, and superconductivity from the pairing up of electrons. Perhaps life, too, can be elegantly described as a property that can emerge under the right circumstances.
But which circumstances? [Continue reading…]