Tag Archives: life

What Is Life? And Other Interdisciplinary Questions

Scientists, like most people, want to understand the world they live in. We examine the physical structure of the world, in the hope that understanding the rules governing it will also lend some clue as to what it all means. Ironically, as the boundaries of scientific knowledge grow, the possibility of any individual scientist grasping this entire meaning gets smaller and smaller. Even within science, the traditional disciplinary boundaries—biology, chemistry, physics—often separate scientists who should really be talking to each other. I have always loved talking to people who know different things than I do, prompted by curiosity and encouraged by family. But it can be rare to see famous scientists doing the same.

Erwin Schrödinger, a physicist famous for his mathematical and philosophical development of quantum mechanics, tried to reach across these boundaries and ask the question that compels so many of us, namely ‘What Is Life?’ His historic lectures were given in 1943, against the backdrop of world war and 75 years behind our current understanding of biology. And in a wise move for anyone trying to understand something new, Schrödinger began by admitting what he didn’t know: to him, the difference between what physics and biology had to say about life was the difference between “a wallpaper and a Raphael tapestry”.

And yet, connecting physical understanding to biology has provided significant insights. When these lectures were given, the DNA molecule itself had already been discovered, but the double helix structure was yet to be found, along with much of our modern understanding of how this blueprint for life works. And yet the stability of the DNA molecule in the cell is directly due to the quantum basis of chemical bonds. Schrödinger expresses amazement that even with the perturbations caused by heat and environment at the molecular level, the naive physicist’s expectation of wild variability is incorrect, and chemical stability holds. While DNA does sometimes mutate in ways that persist through generations, forming the basis of natural selection, its ability to reproduce error free throughout our lives is amazing from a physics perspective. Especially when one considers the consequences of uncontrolled mutation, as the world would see only two years later as radiation-induced mutation caused terrible illness in the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In trying to define life, Schrödinger comes to the idea of order and disorder, and the physicist’s idea of entropy. Although entropy, which is a measure of disorder, is bound to increase over time subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Schrodinger posited that living beings were effectively decreasing their local entropy by exporting it, increasing order within the cell even if the broader environment became less ordered. Cheating the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a necessity for living cells, living beings, and even our planet to maintain local order. Schrodinger then concludes that living beings must be ‘negative entropy machines’, converting energy to local order, a perspective only a physicist could have come up with.

Schrödinger’s willingness to admit what he did not know, and try to combine modern biology and modern physics even during wartime to unify humanity in knowledge, put me in mind of another, less famous, transdisciplinary scientist.

A man pipetting.

My father, Eric Fairfield, was a biochemistry professor who left academia to work on the Human Genome Project. We talked about science a lot, especially once I chose to pursue physics. I know he was proud of me for becoming a scientist, even though as a biochemist he could not resist ribbing me for my limited understanding of biology. When I read Schrodinger’s statement:


I could nearly hear it in my dad’s voice. The “naive physicist’s approach” to understand the cell by looking to statistical physics and randomnessi misses the stability of chemical bonds in the DNA molecule and other cellular components. In a messy, changeable environment, the blueprints that make us have persisted through thousands of generations. As my dad used to say, biology had this figured out a long time before we even knew what questions to ask.

But this isn’t to say that physicists have no business asking questions in biology, or vice versa. Biology is built on the laws of physics and chemistry, even if the exact details of how are still being puzzled out today. And questions that my dad put to me, as part of his own research, often had me questioning both physics and biology. How does a cell know what organ to build a piece of? What biochemical signals lead to the evolution of our own sensory organs, like ears or eyes? How does higher level order arise from molecule level decisions?

I enjoyed discussing these questions with him, and asking my own about the chemistry of the nanomaterials I studied, and their current and possible future biological applications. But the last big biological questions my dad asked ended up being about cancer, a scientific issue that has absorbed the careers of many researchers. Colon cancer took my father’s life last year, and when I have a question about biology, I can no longer call him to see if he’s thought about it before. At his memorial service, many friends commented how much they enjoyed talking science with my dad, whether they had a scientific background or not. He enjoyed discussing and debating these topics with anyone, even if and sometimes especially if they had a vastly different perspective to his own. But I think science would get a little bit further if we had more scientists like my father, or like Erwin Schrödinger, who were willing to cross disciplinary boundaries, admit what they don’t know, and see where they can go from here.

My scientific colleagues may find this to be a very personal response to a scientific matter. But Schrödinger himself dedicated What Is Life? to the memory of his parents. We are all searching for answers together, inspired by those who have come before, and certain to be surprised by what comes next.


Entropy and Life

Entropy is a measure of how many configurations could yield the same macrostate, and thus how probable the macrostate is. It can be a measure of information, or a measure of disorder in a physical system. But what about the entropy of biological systems?

Relatively few configurations yield life, compared to the many that don’t. Life is highly ordered, so living organisms should have much lower entropy than their non-living constituents. In fact, using energy to create and maintain order is one of the key signatures of life! One implication of life having low entropy is that life is improbable, which so far seems to be true based on the limited observations we have of other planets. But another implication is that living things act to reduce entropy locally, in the organism, there must be a corresponding increase in entropy somewhere else to offset that reduction. This is required because of the second law of thermodynamics, which says that by far the most statistically probable outcome is an entropy increase. But the second law applies to ‘closed systems’, which means a system that cannot exchange heat or energy with its surroundings. An organism that can interact with its surroundings can expel entropy via heat, to gain local order and reduce local entropy. Global disorder still increases, but for that organism, the ability to locally reduce entropy is literally a matter of life and death.

An obvious example of this principle is humans. Our human bodies are very highly ordered compared to inanimate things like air and water. Even compared to dirt, which has a whole ecosystem of microbiota and larger organisms like worms, a human represents many times more order. But this doesn’t contradict the second law, because the way we maintain life is to take in food and expel very disordered waste products. Humans can extract the chemical energy in the food and use it to maintain or decrease local entropy levels, and thus stay alive. Obviously other animals do this too, though they may eat different things than we do or digest them in different ways. And actually, the plants that we and other animals eat have done something similar, except that instead of getting chemical energy from combustion they are able to extract it directly from the sun’s light. Plants maintain their low entropy by releasing heat and high-entropy waste products, and anything that eats plants (or that eats something that eats plants) is converting solar energy into local order as well as expelled heat.

If you’re really feeling clever, you might ask, what about the planet Earth? If we’re receiving all this sunlight, and making life from it, shouldn’t there be a corresponding buildup of entropy on the planet, in the form of waste heat or some other disordering? Isn’t the Earth a closed system, isolated in space, whose order is constantly increasing?

But if a closed system is one which exchanges no heat with its surroundings, then the Earth doesn’t qualify because it is obviously exchanging heat with the Sun! The Earth receives a massive number of photons from the sun, which is where plants, and by extension the rest of us, get energy to create order. But in addition, the Earth is also radiating energy and heat into space, as all objects do. The incident energy from the sun is directional, high-energy, and highly ordered, but the energy the Earth radiates into space is in all directions, low-energy, and very disordered. That’s where the excess entropy is going!

Thus, life on our dear planet is not a violation of the second law of thermodynamics at all, because living organisms and even huge ecosystems are not closed systems. What’s more, the creation of order from chaos actually requires a net increase in entropy: it requires a reconfiguration of atoms and microstates, and the most likely outcome of any reconfiguration is an increase in entropy.  Many of chemical reactions necessary for life are entropically driven, where the outcome has many more available states than the inputs so the reaction is statistically favored to occur. Organisms that do work to create order must also create entropy, and the organisms most likely to survive are often those with the most clever control of entropy generation. So the proliferation of life is not threatened by entropy, as in the popular conception, but actually depends on entropy generation!