The Sciences

The Meaning of "Life"

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollSep 8, 2007 3:21 PM

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John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts has a great post about the development of the modern definition of "Life" (which, one strongly suspects, is by no means fully developed). Once we break free of the most parochial definitions involving carbon-based chemistry, we're left with the general ideas that life is something complex, something that processes information, something that can evolve, something that takes advantage of local entropy gradients to make records and build structures. (Probably quantum computation does not play a crucial role, but who knows?) One of the first people to think in these physical terms was none other than Erwin Schrödinger, who was mostly famous for other things, but did write an influential little book called What Is Life? that explored the connections between life and thermodynamics. Searching for a definition of "Life" is a great reminder of the crucial lesson that we do not find definitions lying out there in the world; we find stuff out there in the world, and it's our job to choose definitions that help us make sense of it, carving up the world into useful categories. When it comes to life, it's not so easy to find a definition that includes everything that we would like to think of as living, but excludes the things we don't.

For example: is the Milky Way galaxy alive? Probably not, so find a good definition that unambiguously excludes it. Keep in mind that the Milky Way, like any good galaxy, metabolizes raw materials (turning hydrogen and helium into heavier elements) and creates complexity out of simplicity, and does so by taking advantage of a dramatic departure from thermal equilibrium (of which CV readers are well aware) to build organization via an entropy gradient. Update: Unbeknownst to me, Carl Zimmer had just written about this exact topic in Seed. Hat tip to 3QD.

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