What is life?
When Erwin Schrödinger posed this question in 1944, in a book of the same name, he was 57 years old. He had won the Nobel in Physics eleven years earlier, and was arguably past his glory days. Indeed, at that time he was working mostly on his ill-fated “Unitary Field Theory.” By all accounts, the publication of “What is Life?”—venturing far outside of a theoretical physicist’s field of expertise—raised many eyebrows. How presumptuous for a physicist to take on one of the deepest questions in biology! But Schrödinger argued that science should not be compartmentalized:
“Some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them—and at the risk of making fools of ourselves.”
Schrödinger’s “What is Life” has been extraordinarily influential, in one part because he was one of the first who dared to ask the question seriously, and in another because it was the book that was read by a good number of physicists—famously both Francis Crick and James Watson independently, but also many a member of the “Phage group,” a group of scientists that started the field of bacterial genetics—and steered them to new careers in biology. The book is perhaps less famous for the answers Schrödinger suggested, as almost all of them have turned out to be wrong.
Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia
our existence can succinctly be described as “information that can replicate itself,” the immediate follow-up question is, “Where did this information come from?”
from an information perspective, only the first step in life is difficult. The rest is just a matter of time.
Through decades of work by legions of scientists, we now know that the process of Darwinian evolution tends to lead to an increase in the information coded in genes. That this must happen on average is not difficult to see. Imagine I start out with a genome encoding n bits of information. In an evolutionary process, mutations occur on the many representatives of this information in a population. The mutations can change the amount of information, or they can leave the information unchanged. If the information changes, it can increase or decrease. But very different fates befall those two different changes. The mutation that caused a decrease in information will generally lead to lower fitness, as the information stored in our genes is used to build the organism and survive. If you know less than your competitors about how to do this, you are unlikely to thrive as well as they do. If, on the other hand, you mutate towards more information—meaning better prediction—you are likely to use that information to have an edge in survival.
There are some plants with huge amounts of DNA compared to their “peers”–perhaps these would be interesting test cases for potential experimentation of this?
A summer school for advanced undergraduates
June 11-22, 2018 @ Princeton University
What would it mean to have a physicist’s understanding of life?
How do DYNAMICS and the EMERGENCE of ORDER affect biological function?
How do organisms process INFORMATION, LEARN, ADAPT, and EVOLVE?
See how physics problems emerge from thinking about developing embryos, communicating bacteria, dynamic neural networks, animal behaviors, evolution, and more.
Learn how ideas and methods from statistical physics, simulation and data analysis, optics and microscopy connect to diverse biological phenomena.
Explore these questions, tools, and concepts in an intense two weeks of lectures, seminars, hands-on exercises, and projects.
Lane lays out a “brief” history of the 4 billion years of life on Earth. Discusses isotopic fractionation and other evidence that essentially shows a bottleneck between bacteria and archaea (procaryotes) on the one hand and eucaryotes on the other, the latter of which all must have had a single common ancestor based on the genetic profiles we currently see. He suggest that while we should see even more diversity of complex life, we do not, and he hints at the end of the chapter that the reason is energy.
In general, it’s much easier to follow than I anticipated it might be. His writing style is lucid and fluid and he has some lovely prose not often seen in books of this sort. It’s quite a pleasure to read. Additionally he’s doing a very solid job of building an argument in small steps.
I’m watching closely how he’s repeatedly using the word information in his descriptions, and it seems to be a much more universal and colloquial version than the more technical version, but something interesting may come out of it from my philosophical leanings. I can’t wait to get further into the book to see how things develop.
All living things are made of cells, and all cells are powered by electrochemical charges across thin lipid membranes — the ‘proton motive force.’ We know how these electrical charges are generated by protein machines at virtually atomic resolution, but we know very little about how membrane bioenergetics first arose. By tracking back cellular evolution to the last universal common ancestor and beyond, scientist Nick Lane argues that geologically sustained electrochemical charges across semiconducting barriers were central to both energy flow and the formation of new organic matter — growth — at the very origin of life.
Dr. Lane is a professor of evolutionary biochemistry in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. His research focuses on how energy flow constrains evolution from the origin of life to the traits of complex multicellular organisms. He is a co-director of the new Centre for Life’s Origins and Evolution (CLOE) at UCL, and author of four celebrated books on life’s origins and evolution. His work has been recognized by the Biochemical Society Award in 2015 and the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize in 2016.
This morning, at the Friday morning coffee meetup of Innovate Pasadena held at Cross Campus, I saw one of the singularly best and most valuable talks I’ve heard in a long time. Many of these types of speakers, while engaging or even entertaining, are telling the same tired stories and at best you learn one sentence’s worth of value. Definitively not the case this morning!!!
Entitled How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having “Female Brains”) writer and speaker Valerie Alexander presented a brief discussion of human evolutionary history (a topic I’ve studied closely for several decades) that featured the difference in development of male and female human brains. Based on this and with a clearer picture of what broadly differentiates the sexes, Valerie then gave a multitude of highly relate-able examples from her professional life highlighting how women can simply take back control in the workplace to not only better succeed for themselves, but to also help their companies see their true value and succeed simultaneously.
Further, she also included some simple and very actionable advice (for men and women) to be able to make a better space within corporations so that they’re able to extract more of the value women bring to the workplace. Hint: Women bring a HUGE amount of value, and a majority of companies are not only undervaluing it, but they are literally throwing it away.
Not only were the messages tremendously valuable and imminently actionable by both women AND men, but she delivered it with fantastic confidence, grace, wit, charm, and warmth. In fact, I’d say it was not only strikingly informative, but it was also very entertaining. If you’re in the corporate space and looking to turn around your antediluvian or even pre-historic work culture (I’m looking ominously at you Uber and similar Silicon Valley brogrammer cultures), then jump in line as quickly as you can to book up what I can only expect is the diminishing time in her speaking and travel schedule.
Innovate Pasadena recorded the talk and I’ll try to post it here as soon as it’s available. Until then I will highly recommend purchasing her book How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having “Female Brains”), which I’m sure has not only the content of her lecture, but assuredly includes a whole lot more detail and additional examples than one could fit into such a short time frame. I also suspect it’s the type of book one would want to refer back to frequently as well. I’ve already got a half a dozen copies of it on their way to me to share with friends and family. I’m willing to make a substantial bet that for uncovering inherent value, this book and her overall message will eventually stand in the pantheon of texts and work of those like those of Frederick Winslow Taylor, Lillian Gilbreth, Frank Gilbreth, Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, J.M. Juran, and W. Edwards Deming.
Psst… If the good folks at TED need some fantastic content, I saw a shortened 25 minute version of her hour-long talk. It could be tightened a hair for content and length, but it’s got exactly the tone, tempo and has the high level of presentation skills for which you’re known. Most importantly, it’s definitively an “Idea worth spreading.”
Dr. Walker introduces the concept of information, then proposes that information may be a necessity for biological complexity in this thought-provoking talk on the origins of life.
Sara is a theoretical physicist and astrobiologist, researching the origins and nature of life. She is particularly interested in addressing the question of whether or not “other laws of physics” might govern life, as first posed by Erwin Schrodinger in his famous book What is life?. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. She is also Fellow of the ASU -Santa Fe Institute Center for Biosocial Complex Systems, Founder of the astrobiology-themed social website SAGANet.org, and is a member of the Board of Directors of Blue Marble Space. She is active in public engagement in science, with recent appearances on “Through the Wormhole” and NPR’s Science Friday.
Admittedly, she only had a few short minutes, but it would have been nice if she’d started out with a precise definition of information. I suspect the majority of her audience didn’t know the definition with which she’s working and it would have helped focus the talk.
Her description of Speigelman’s Monster was relatively interesting and not very often seen in much of the literature that covers these areas.
I wouldn’t rate this very highly as a TED Talk as it wasn’t as condensed and simplistic as most, nor was it as hyper-focused, but then again condensing this area into 11 minutes is far from simple task. I do love that she’s excited enough about the topic that she almost sounds a little out of breath towards the end.
There’s an excellent Eddington quote I’ve mentioned before that would have been apropos to have opened up her presentation that might have brought things into higher relief given her talk title:
The origins of life stands among the great open scientific questions of our time. While a number of proposals exist for possible starting points in the pathway from non-living to living matter, these have so far not achieved states of complexity that are anywhere near that of even the simplest living systems. A key challenge is identifying the properties of living matter that might distinguish living and non-living physical systems such that we might build new life in the lab. This review is geared towards covering major viewpoints on the origin of life for those new to the origin of life field, with a forward look towards considering what it might take for a physical theory that universally explains the phenomenon of life to arise from the seemingly disconnected array of ideas proposed thus far. The hope is that a theory akin to our other theories in fundamental physics might one day emerge to explain the phenomenon of life, and in turn finally permit solving its origins.
One of America’s foremost philosophers offers a major new account of the origins of the conscious mind.
How did we come to have minds?
For centuries, this question has intrigued psychologists, physicists, poets, and philosophers, who have wondered how the human mind developed its unrivaled ability to create, imagine, and explain. Disciples of Darwin have long aspired to explain how consciousness, language, and culture could have appeared through natural selection, blazing promising trails that tend, however, to end in confusion and controversy. Even though our understanding of the inner workings of proteins, neurons, and DNA is deeper than ever before, the matter of how our minds came to be has largely remained a mystery.
That is now changing, says Daniel C. Dennett. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his most comprehensive exploration of evolutionary thinking yet, he builds on ideas from computer science and biology to show how a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection. Part philosophical whodunit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought.
In his inimitable style―laced with wit and arresting thought experiments―Dennett explains that a crucial shift occurred when humans developed the ability to share memes, or ways of doing things not based in genetic instinct. Language, itself composed of memes, turbocharged this interplay. Competition among memes―a form of natural selection―produced thinking tools so well-designed that they gave us the power to design our own memes. The result, a mind that not only perceives and controls but can create and comprehend, was thus largely shaped by the process of cultural evolution.
An agenda-setting book for a new generation of philosophers, scientists, and thinkers, From Bacteria to Bach and Back will delight and entertain anyone eager to make sense of how the mind works and how it came about.
Life was long thought to obey its own set of rules. But as simple systems show signs of lifelike behavior, scientists are arguing about whether this apparent complexity is all a consequence of thermodynamics.
This is a nice little general interest article by Philip Ball that does a relatively good job of covering several of my favorite topics (information theory, biology, complexity) for the layperson. While it stays relatively basic, it links to a handful of really great references, many of which I’ve already read, though several appear to be new to me. 
While Ball has a broad area of interests and coverage in his work, he’s certainly one of the best journalists working in this subarea of interests today. I highly recommend his work to those who find this area interesting.
E. Mayr, What Makes Biology Unique? Cambridge University Press, 2004.
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A. Barato and U. Seifert, “Thermodynamic uncertainty relation for biomolecular processes.,” Phys Rev Lett, vol. 114, no. 15, p. 158101, Apr. 2015. [PubMed]
J. Shay and W. Wright, “Hayflick, his limit, and cellular ageing.,” Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 72–6, Oct. 2000. [PubMed]
X. Dong, B. Milholland, and J. Vijg, “Evidence for a limit to human lifespan,” Nature, vol. 538, no. 7624. Springer Nature, pp. 257–259, 05-Oct-2016 [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature19793
R. Landauer, “Irreversibility and Heat Generation in the Computing Process,” IBM Journal of Research and Development, vol. 5, no. 3. IBM, pp. 183–191, Jul-1961 [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1147/rd.53.0183
The story of human evolution has fascinated us like no other: we seem to have an insatiable curiosity about who we are and where we have come from. Yet studying the “stones and bones” skirts around what is perhaps the realest, and most relatable, story of human evolution – the social and cognitive changes that gave rise to modern humans.
In Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior, Robin Dunbar appeals to the human aspects of every reader, as subjects of mating, friendship, and community are discussed from an evolutionary psychology perspective. With a table of contents ranging from prehistoric times to modern days, Human Evolution focuses on an aspect of evolution that has typically been overshadowed by the archaeological record: the biological, neurological, and genetic changes that occurred with each “transition” in the evolutionary narrative. Dunbar’s interdisciplinary approach – inspired by his background as both an anthropologist and accomplished psychologist – brings the reader into all aspects of the evolutionary process, which he describes as the “jigsaw puzzle” of evolution that he and the reader will help solve. In doing so, the book carefully maps out each stage of the evolutionary process, from anatomical changes such as bipedalism and increase in brain size, to cognitive and behavioral changes, such as the ability to cook, laugh, and use language to form communities through religion and story-telling. Most importantly and interestingly, Dunbar hypothesizes the order in which these evolutionary changes occurred-conclusions that are reached with the “time budget model” theory that Dunbar himself coined. As definitive as the “stones and bones” are for the hard dates of archaeological evidence, this book explores far more complex psychological questions that require a degree of intellectual speculation: What does it really mean to be human (as opposed to being an ape), and how did we come to be that way?
This tutorial will review the basics of theory in the field of evolutionary quantitative genetics and its connections to evolution observed at various time scales. Quantitative genetics deals with the inheritance of measurements of traits that are affected by many genes. Quantitative genetic theory for natural populations was developed considerably in the period from 1970 to 1990 and up to the present, and it has been applied to a wide range of phenomena including the evolution of differences between the sexes, sexual preferences, life history traits, plasticity of traits, as well as the evolution of body size and other morphological measurements. Textbooks have not kept pace with these developments, and currently few universities offer courses in this subject aimed at evolutionary biologists. There is a need for evolutionary biologists to understand this field because of the ability to collect large amounts of data by computer, the development of statistical methods for changes of traits on evolutionary trees and for changes in a single species through time, and the realization that quantitative characters will not soon be fully explained by genomics. This tutorial aims to fill this need by reviewing basic aspects of theory and illustrating how that theory can be tested with data, both from single species and with multiple-species phylogenies. Participants will learn to use R, an open-source statistical programming language, to build and test evolutionary models. The intended participants for this tutorial are graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty members in evolutionary biology.
Even in 2016, publishers and authors are still struggling when it comes to re-releasing decades-old books, but Penguin had a unique problem when it set out to publish a 30th anniversary edition of Richard Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker.<br /><br />The Bookseller reports that Penguin decided to revive four programs Dawkins wrote in 1986. Written in Pascal for the Mac, The Watchmaker Suite was an experiment in algorithmic evolution. Users could run the programs and create a biomorph, and then watch it evolve across the generations.<br /><br />And now you can do the same in your web browser.<br /><br />A website, MountImprobable.com, was built by the publisher’s in-house Creative Technology team—comprising community manager Claudia Toia, creative developer Mathieu Triay and cover designer Matthew Young—who resuscitated and redeployed code Dawkins wrote in the 1980s and ’90s to enable users to create unique, “evolutionary” imprints. The images will be used as cover imagery on Dawkins’ trio to grant users an entirely individual, personalised print copy.