(Roughly) Daily

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”*…

There is just something obviously reasonable about the following notion: If all life is built from atoms that obey precise equations we know—which seems to be true—then the existence of life might just be some downstream consequence of these laws that we haven’t yet gotten around to calculating. This is essentially a physicist’s way of thinking, and to its credit, it has already done a great deal to help us understand how living things work…

But approaching the subject of life with this attitude will fail us, for at least two reasons. The first reason we might call the fallacy of reductionism. Reductionism is the presumption that any piece of the universe we might choose to study works like some specimen of antique, windup clockwork, so that it is easy (or at least eminently possible) to predict the behavior of the whole once you know the rules governing how each of its parts pushes on and moves with the others…

The second mistake in how people have viewed the boundary between life and non-life is still rampant in the present day and originates in the way we use language. A great many people imagine that if we understand physics well enough, we will eventually comprehend what life is as a physical phenomenon in the same way we now understand how and why water freezes or boils. Indeed, it often seems people expect that a good enough physical theory could become the new gold standard for saying what is alive and what is not.

However, this approach fails to acknowledge that our own role in giving names to the phenomena of the world precedes our ability to say with any clarity what it means to even call something alive. A physicist who wants to devise theories of how living things behave or emerge has to start by making intuitive choices about how to translate the characteristics of the examples of life we know into a physical language. After one has done so, it quickly becomes clear that the boundary between what is alive and what is not is something that already got drawn at the outset, through a different way of talking than physics provides…

Physics is an approach to science that roots itself in the measurement of particular quantities: distance, mass, duration, charge, temperature, and the like. Whether we are talking about making empirical observations or developing theories to make predictions, the language of physics is inherently metrical and mathematical. The phenomena of physics are always expressed in terms of how one set of measurable numbers behaves when other sets of measurable numbers are held fixed or varied. This is why the genius of Newton’s Second Law, F = ma, was not merely that it proposed a successful equation relating force (F), mass (m), and acceleration (a), but rather that it realized that these were all quantities in the world that could be independently measured and compared in order to discover such a general relationship.

This is not how the science of biology works. It is true that doing excellent research in biology involves trafficking in numbers, especially these days: For example, statistical methods help one gain confidence in trends discovered through repeated observations (such as a significant but small increase in the rate of cell death when a drug is introduced). Nonetheless, there is nothing fundamentally quantitative about the scientific study of life. Instead, biology takes the categories of living and nonliving things for granted as a starting point, and then uses the scientific method to investigate what is predictable about the behavior and qualities of life. Biologists did not have to go around convincing humanity that the world actually divides into things that are alive and things that are not; instead, in much the same way that it is quite popular across the length and breadth of human language to coin terms for commonplace things like stars, rivers, and trees, the difference between being alive and not being alive gets denoted with vocabulary.

In short, biology could not have been invented without the preexisting concept of life to inspire it, and all it needed to get going was for someone to realize that there were things to be discovered by reasoning scientifically about things that were alive. This means, though, that biology most certainly is not founded on mathematics in the way that physics is. Discovering that plants need sunlight to grow, or that fish will suffocate when taken out of water, requires no quantification of anything whatsoever. Of course, we could learn more by measuring how much sunlight the plant got, or timing how long it takes for the fish-out-of-water to expire. But the basic empirical law in biological terms only concerns itself with what conditions will enable or prevent thriving, and what it means to thrive comes from our qualitative and holistic judgment of what it looks like to succeed at being alive. If we are honest with ourselves, the ability to make this judgment was not taught to us by scientists, but comes from a more common kind of knowledge: We are alive ourselves, and constantly mete out life and death to bugs and flowers in our surroundings. Science may help us to discover new ways to make things live or die, but only once we tell the scientists how to use those words. We did not know any physics when we invented the word “life,” and it would be strange if physics only now began suddenly to start dictating to us what the word means.

The origin of life can’t be explained by first principles: “Why Physics Can’t Tell Us What Life Is.”

See also this interview with Jeremy England, the author of the article linked above (and of the book from which it is excerpted): “The Physicist’s New Book of Life.”

  • Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night


As we live and let live, we might spare a thought for Ernest Everett Just; he died on this date in 1941.  A pioneering biologist, academic, and science writer, he contributed mightily to the understanding of cell division, the fertilization of egg cells, experimental parthenogenesis, hydration, cell division, dehydration in living cells, and the effect of ultra violet rays on egg cells.

An African-American, he had limited academic prospects on his graduation from Dartmouth, but was able to land a teaching spot at Howard University.  Just met  Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass.  In 1909 Lillie invited Just to spend first one, then several summers at Woods Hole, where Just pioneered the study of whole cells under normal conditions (rather than simply breaking them apart in a laboratory setting).  In 1915, Just was awarded the first Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given by the NAACP.

But outside MBL, Just experienced discrimination.  Seeking more opportunity he spent most of the 1930s in various European universities– until the outbreak of WW II hostilities caused him to return to the U.S. in late 1940.  He died of pancreatic cancer on this date the next year.



Written by LW

October 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

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