Jeremy England, Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT, proposed a new physics theory that the beginning of life was not a fluke or luck from a primordial soup jolted by a bolt of lightning, but the result of necessity.
Scientists have found it hard to explain how living things, which are good at taking energy from what is around them and dissipating it as heat, could originate from non-living things.
Prof. England’s theory, which was first reported in Quanta Magazine in January 2014, suggests that the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the basic laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”
If you shine light on a random clump of atoms long enough, don’t be surprised if you end up with a plant, says Prof. England. (Image: MIT)
For a physicist, there is one huge difference between living things and non-living clumps of carbon atoms: living things are much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating the energy as heat.
Prof. England has derived a mathematical formula that indicates that when a clump of atoms is driven by an external source of energy, such as the sun, and surrounded by a heat bath (like the atmosphere or ocean), it tends to gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy.
Prof. England explained:
“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments.”
Under the right conditions life is inevitable
Consequently, under certain conditions, this could mean that matter will always acquire the key physical attribute associated with life.
Prof. England said:
“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.”
Prof. England says his theory does not replace Darwin’s (above) Theory of Evolution, it underlies it.
Prof. England emphasized that his theory does not replace Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, but underlies it. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong. On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.”
According to Paul Rosenberg, who wrote on Richard Dawkins’ website on Tuesday, Prof. England’s theory might make things “a whole lot worse for creationists.”
The idea that life might have evolved from non-living things can be traced back to pre-Socratic philosophers. Prof. England’s theory, however, is the first one to have been convincingly proposed since Charles Darwin. It is also backed by mathematical research – it is a proposal than can be put to the test.