Jeremy England, an Exciting New Scientist

Jeremy England is an academic based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wonders if physics, his specialist subject,  might be better placed than biology to explain the emergence of life on earth. Clues to this idea lie in the way sand drifts to form complex dune patterns, and in the capacity of water to build beautifully intricate snowflakes. Neither last of course: sand dunes collapse and snowflakes dissolve, but for a while at least they cheat what is called the second law of thermodynamics, namely the cast-iron rule that everything must become increasingly dis-organised. Disintegrate, essentially. Any reader who like me has moved into their later years will know all about this: creaking joints, thinning hair…I won’t go on. But our earlier astounding progression from a microscopic fertilized egg to a fully grown being passing their driving test defied the second law of thermodynamics: we (and all other living things) become ever larger, more complex and personally organised as we advance towards maturity. One of the big unanswered questions is: how can this happen, when everything in the universe should simply be disintegrating? For the past hundred years we’ve assumed that there is some special anti-disintegration (or anti-entropy) property within life. Jeremy England is now showing us there might be another explanation. He has taken very basic chemicals, poured them into a liquid and subjected the mix to some sustained shaking. As a consequence some of the chemicals began to link up, organizing themselves to form more complex structures. In short, their behaviour was lifelike. They pulled off this trick by exploiting some of the energy Jeremy had put into the mix, while pushing some out as heat. This process, known as dissipative adaption, suggests that matter can exploit energy to develop into building blocks of life. It’s still a long way to the formation of amino acids or protein, or the making the giant step to reproduction, but it does demonstrate that at its most basic (i.e. at the level of individual chemicals), nature has an ability to put itself together. Jeremy England’s finding is delightful supporting evidence for Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century prediction that given their ability to arrange themselves to form molecules, atoms might be “knowing bodies”.

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