Listened to The Origins of Life: David Krakauer, Sarah Maurer, and Chris Kempes at InterPlanetary Festival 2019 by Michael Garfield from Complexity by the Santa Fe Institute

OCTOBER 9TH, 2019 | 55:37

A few years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, upsetting centuries of certainty about the history of life, he wrote a now-famous letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, British botanist and advocate of evolutionary theory. "But if (and oh what a big if),” Darwin’s letter reads, “we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etcetera present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes.”

That was 1871. Nearly 150 years hence, humankind has worked out the details of the evolutionary process to exquisite depth and resolution, but abiogenesis - the origins of life - remains one of the greatest mysteries of our world. Fierce theoretical debates rage on between those who think life got its start in deep sea hydrothermal vents and those who think it started in “some warm little pond” – not to mention more heterodox hypotheses. The consequences are enormous – shaping plans for interplanetary exploration, changing our approach to medicine, and maybe foremost, settling the existential question of what life is in the first place.

This week’s episode was recorded live at the Santa Fe Institute’s InterPlanetary Festival in June 2019. The panel features evolutionary theorist David Krakauer, President of SFI; biochemist Sarah Maurer, Assistant Professor at Central Connecticut State University; and SFI Professor Chris Kempes, who works on biological scaling laws. In this discussion, we present a spectrum of perspectives on the origins of life debate, and speak to the importance of presenting this unsettled science as itself an evolutionary object...

Visit our website for more information or to support our science and communication efforts.

David Krakauer's Webpage Google Scholar Citations.
Sarah Maurer's Website.
Chris Kempes's Website.
InterPlanetary Festival's Website.
Complexity Explorer's Origins of Life Online Course.

Some interesting philosophical discussion on the origin of life and related research. I definitely fall more into David Krakauer’s camp of thought.

We definitely need a better definition of life. I’ve got a version brewing based on work in the area of big history, but it still needs some refining.

Bookmarked Sum by David Eagleman (eagleman.com)

SUM is a dazzling exploration of funny and unexpected afterlives that have never been considered -- each presented as a vignette that offers us a stunning lens through which to see ourselves here and now.

In one afterlife you may find that God is the size of a microbe and is unaware of your existence. In another, your creators are a species of dim-witted creatures who built us to figure out what they could not. In a different version of the afterlife you work as a background character in other people's dreams. Or you may find that God is a married couple struggling with discontent, or that the afterlife contains only those people whom you remember, or that the hereafter includes the thousands of previous gods who no longer attract followers. In some afterlives you are split into your different ages; in some you are forced to live with annoying versions of yourself that represent what you could have been; in others you are re-created from your credit card records and Internet history. David Eagleman proposes many versions of our purpose here; we are mobile robots for cosmic mapmakers, we are reunions for a scattered confederacy of atoms, we are experimental subjects for gods trying to understand what makes couples stick together.

These wonderfully imagined tales -- at once funny, wistful, and unsettling -- are rooted in science and romance and awe at our mysterious existence: a mixture of death, hope, computers, immortality, love, biology, and desire that exposes radiant new facets of our humanity.

Looks interesting, but I’ll pass at the moment. Ran across reference on a philosophical level in a Complexity related talk from the Santa Fe Institute.

👓 What can Schrödinger’s cat say about 3D printers on Mars? | Aeon | Aeon Essays

Read What can Schrödinger’s cat say about 3D printers on Mars? by Michael Lachmann and Sara Walker (Aeon | Aeon Essays)
A cat is alive, a sofa is not: that much we know. But a sofa is also part of life. Information theory tells us why
A nice little essay in my area, but I’m not sure there’s anything new in it for me. It is nice that they’re trying to break some of the problem down into smaller components before building it back up into something else. Reframing things can always be helpful. Here, in particular, they’re reframing the definitions of life and alive.

🔖 Origins Of Life | Complexity Explorer

Bookmarked Origins Of Life (complexityexplorer.org)

About the Course:

This course aims to push the field of Origins of Life research forward by bringing new and synthetic thinking to the question of how life emerged from an abiotic world.

This course begins by examining the chemical, geological, physical, and biological principles that give us insight into origins of life research. We look at the chemical and geological environment of early Earth from the perspective of likely environments for life to originate.

Taking a look at modern life we ask what it can tell us about the origin of life by winding the clock backwards. We explore what elements of modern life are absolutely essential for life, and ask what is arbitrary? We ponder how life arose from the huge chemical space and what this early 'living chemistry'may have looked like.

We examine phenomena, that may seem particularly life like, but are in fact likely to arise given physical dynamics alone. We analyze what physical concepts and laws bound the possibilities for life and its formation.

Insights gained from modern evolutionary theory will be applied to proto-life. Once life emerges, we consider how living systems impact the geosphere and evolve complexity. 

The study of Origins of Life is highly interdisciplinary - touching on concepts and principles from earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics.  With this we hope that the course can bring students interested in a broad range of fields to explore how life originated. 

The course will make use of basic algebra, chemistry, and biology but potentially difficult topics will be reviewed, and help is available in the course discussion forum and instructor email. There will be pointers to additional resources for those who want to dig deeper.

This course is Complexity Explorer's first Frontiers Course.  A Frontiers Course gives students a tour of an active interdisciplinary research area. The goals of a Frontiers Course are to share the excitement and uncertainty of a scientific area, inspire curiosity, and possibly draw new people into the research community who can help this research area take shape!

I’m totally in for this!

Hat tip for the reminder to:

📖 Read pages 54-60 of 251 of The Demon in the Machine by Paul Davies

📖 Read pages 54-60 of 251 of The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life by Paul Davies

I’ve seen a few places in the text where he references “group(s) of Japanese scientists” in a collective way where as when the scientists are from the West he tends to name at least a principle investigator if not multiple members of a team. Is this implicit bias? I hope it’s not, but it feels very conspicuous and regular to me and I wish it weren’t there.

Photo of the book The Demon in the Machine by Paul Davies sitting on a wooden table. The cover is primarily the title in a large font superimposed on a wireframe of a bird in which the wireframe is meant to look like nodes in a newtowrk

Acquired The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life by Paul Davies

Acquired The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life by Paul DaviesPaul Davies (Allen Lane)

How does life create order from chaos? And just what is life, anyway? Leading physicist Paul Davies argues that to find the answers, we must first answer a deeper question: 'What is information?' To understand the origins and nature of life, Davies proposes a radical vision of biology which sees the underpinnings of life as similar to circuits and electronics, arguing that life as we know it should really be considered a phenomenon of information storage. In an extraordinary deep dive into the real mechanics of what we take for granted, Davies reveals how biological processes, from photosynthesis to birds' navigation abilities, rely on quantum mechanics, and explores whether quantum physics could prove to be the secret key of all life on Earth. Lively and accessible, Demons in the Machine boils down intricate interdisciplinary developments to take readers on an eye-opening journey towards the ultimate goal of science: unifying all theories of the living and the non-living, so that humanity can at last understand its place in the universe.

book cover The Demon in the Machine

Ordered from Amazon on February 4th and had it shipped from the UK because I wasn’t sure when the book was going to finally be released in the US.

🔖 The Demon in the Machine by Paul Davies | Allen Lane (2018)

Bookmarked The Demon in the Machine by Paul Davies (Allen Lane)

How does life create order from chaos? And just what is life, anyway? Leading physicist Paul Davies argues that to find the answers, we must first answer a deeper question: 'What is information?' To understand the origins and nature of life, Davies proposes a radical vision of biology which sees the underpinnings of life as similar to circuits and electronics, arguing that life as we know it should really be considered a phenomenon of information storage. In an extraordinary deep dive into the real mechanics of what we take for granted, Davies reveals how biological processes, from photosynthesis to birds' navigation abilities, rely on quantum mechanics, and explores whether quantum physics could prove to be the secret key of all life on Earth. Lively and accessible, Demons in the Machine boils down intricate interdisciplinary developments to take readers on an eye-opening journey towards the ultimate goal of science: unifying all theories of the living and the non-living, so that humanity can at last understand its place in the universe.

book cover of The Demon in the Machine by Paul Davies

Found via review.

👓 ‘I predict a great revolution’: inside the struggle to define life | the Guardian

Read 'I predict a great revolution': inside the struggle to define life by Ian Sample (the Guardian)
Paul Davies thinks combining physics and biology will reveal a pattern of information management
hat tip: Philip Ball

👓 Living Bits: Information and the Origin of Life | PBS

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?

🔖 Self-Organized Resonance during Search of a Diverse Chemical Space

Bookmarked Self-Organized Resonance during Search of a Diverse Chemical Space (Physical Review Letters)
ABSTRACT Recent studies of active matter have stimulated interest in the driven self-assembly of complex structures. Phenomenological modeling of particular examples has yielded insight, but general thermodynamic principles unifying the rich diversity of behaviors observed have been elusive. Here, we study the stochastic search of a toy chemical space by a collection of reacting Brownian particles subject to periodic forcing. We observe the emergence of an adaptive resonance in the system matched to the drive frequency, and show that the increased work absorption by these resonant structures is key to their stabilization. Our findings are consistent with a recently proposed thermodynamic mechanism for far-from-equilibrium self-organization.
Suggested by First Support for a Physics Theory of Life in Quanta Magazine.

🔖 Spontaneous fine-tuning to environment in many-species chemical reaction networks | PNAS

Bookmarked Spontaneous fine-tuning to environment in many-species chemical reaction networks (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)
Significance A qualitatively more diverse range of possible behaviors emerge in many-particle systems once external drives are allowed to push the system far from equilibrium; nonetheless, general thermodynamic principles governing nonequilibrium pattern formation and self-assembly have remained elusive, despite intense interest from researchers across disciplines. Here, we use the example of a randomly wired driven chemical reaction network to identify a key thermodynamic feature of a complex, driven system that characterizes the “specialness” of its dynamical attractor behavior. We show that the network’s fixed points are biased toward the extremization of external forcing, causing them to become kinetically stabilized in rare corners of chemical space that are either atypically weakly or strongly coupled to external environmental drives. Abstract A chemical mixture that continually absorbs work from its environment may exhibit steady-state chemical concentrations that deviate from their equilibrium values. Such behavior is particularly interesting in a scenario where the environmental work sources are relatively difficult to access, so that only the proper orchestration of many distinct catalytic actors can power the dissipative flux required to maintain a stable, far-from-equilibrium steady state. In this article, we study the dynamics of an in silico chemical network with random connectivity in an environment that makes strong thermodynamic forcing available only to rare combinations of chemical concentrations. We find that the long-time dynamics of such systems are biased toward states that exhibit a fine-tuned extremization of environmental forcing.
Suggested by First Support for a Physics Theory of Life in Quanta Magazine.

👓 First Support for a Physics Theory of Life | Quanta Magazine

Read First Support for a Physics Theory of Life by Natalie Wolchover (Quanta Magazine)
Take chemistry, add energy, get life. The first tests of Jeremy England’s provocative origin-of-life hypothesis are in, and they appear to show how order can arise from nothing.
Interesting article with some great references I’ll need to delve into and read.


The situation changed in the late 1990s, when the physicists Gavin Crooks and Chris Jarzynski derived “fluctuation theorems” that can be used to quantify how much more often certain physical processes happen than reverse processes. These theorems allow researchers to study how systems evolve — even far from equilibrium.

I want to take a look at these papers as well as several about which the article is directly about.


Any claims that it has to do with biology or the origins of life, he added, are “pure and shameless speculations.”

Some truly harsh words from his former supervisor? Wow!


maybe there’s more that you can get for free

Most of what’s here in this article (and likely in the underlying papers) sounds to me to have been heavily influenced by the writings of W. Loewenstein and S. Kauffman. They’ve laid out some models/ideas that need more rigorous testing and work, and this seems like a reasonable start to the process. The “get for free” phrase itself is very S. Kauffman in my mind. I’m curious how many times it appears in his work?

📺 A Universal Theory of Life: Math, Art & Information by Sara Walker

Watched A Universal Theory of Life: Math, Art & Information from TEDxASU
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.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXnt79JhrbY

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:

Suppose that we were asked to arrange the following in two categories–

distance, mass, electric force, entropy, beauty, melody.

I think there are the strongest grounds for placing entropy alongside beauty and melody and not with the first three.

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, OM, FRS (1882-1944), a British astronomer, physicist, and mathematician
in The Nature of the Physical World, 1927

 

🔖 The hidden simplicity of biology by Paul C W Davies and Sara Imari Walker | Reports on Progress in Physics

Bookmarked The hidden simplicity of biology (Reports on Progress in Physics)
Life is so remarkable, and so unlike any other physical system, that it is tempting to attribute special factors to it. Physics is founded on the assumption that universal laws and principles underlie all natural phenomena, but is it far from clear that there are 'laws of life' with serious descriptive or predictive power analogous to the laws of physics. Nor is there (yet) a 'theoretical biology' in the same sense as theoretical physics. Part of the obstacle in developing a universal theory of biological organization concerns the daunting complexity of living organisms. However, many attempts have been made to glimpse simplicity lurking within this complexity, and to capture this simplicity mathematically. In this paper we review a promising new line of inquiry to bring coherence and order to the realm of biology by focusing on 'information' as a unifying concept.
Downloadable free copy available on ResearchGate.