What is life? (theories of existence)

Earth system
Thermodynamics system view of the earth (4 BYA, daily rotation was fast, rotating about once every 10-hrs).
In queries, what is life? (theories of existence) refers to []

In circa 1882, German physicist Hermann Helmholtz, according to Russian biophysicist Aleksandr Zotin, supposedly argued that life somehow circumvents the second law. [13]

In 1886, Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann stated: [1]

“Between the earth and sun there is a colossal temperature difference; between these two bodies energy is thus not at all distributed according to the laws of probability. The equalization of temperature, based on the tendency towards greater probability, takes millions of years, because the bodies are so large and are so far apart. The intermediate forms assumed by solar energy, until it falls to terrestrial temperatures, can be fairly improbable, so that we can easily use the transition of heat from sun to earth for the performance of work, like the transition of water from the boiler to the cooling instillation. The general struggle for existence of animate beings is not a struggle for raw materials – these, for organisms, are air, water and soil, all abundantly available – nor for energy, which exists in plenty in any body in the form of heat Q, but of a struggle for entropy S, which becomes available through the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth.”

Boltzmann's verbal outline is diagrammed below in a steam engine view of the earth, in which the surface of the earth has attached "system" (working substance or working body), rotating once every 24-hours, such as to have contact, alternately, with a hot body (boiler) and cold body (condenser).

In 1914, American experimental biologist and oceanographer James Johnstone, in his The Philosophy of Biology, stated: [10]

Entropy is a shadowy kind of concept, difficult to grasp, but again, we may point out that, the reader who would extend the notion of mechanism into life simply must grasp it.”

In 1920, American thinker William Sidis, in his book The Animate and the Inanimate, outlined the view that life is a "reversal of the second law of thermodynamics". [8]

In 1944, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, in his popular book What is Life?, outlined the view, using crude probability arguments, that: [2]

“[Life] feeds on negative entropy.”

The basic difficulty in Schrödinger’s negative entropy theory is that he equates sustenance (metabolism) with measures of entropy; whereas in the correct sense, sustenance is a function of substrate interactions, as studied in the field of surface chemistry. In an appended note to his thermodynamics-life chapter, however, Schrödinger states that:

“The remarks on negative entropy have met with doubt and opposition from physicist colleagues. Let me say first, that if I had been law catering for them alone I should have let the discussion turn on free energy instead. It is the more familiar notion in this context. But this highly technical term seemed linguistically too near to energy for making the average reader alive to the contrast between the two things.”

In 1959 and 1963 American physicist Robert Lindsay outlined a similar view in this statement that: [11]

“Man's whole struggle … practically every element in man’s developed civilization, may be interpreted either as an instinctive or conscious and deliberate attempt to replace disorder with order, in other words to consume entropy.”

In 1978, American chemist Peter Molton defined life as "regions of order which use energy to maintain their organization against the disruptive force of entropy.” [9]

In 1987, Austrian-born English molecular biologist Max Perutz, in commentary on Schrödinger’s negative entropy postulate, stated that: [4]

“We live on free energy and there [is] no [need] to postulate negative entropy.”

Thus, by 1987 the rather paradoxical view had emerged, in the thermodynamics community, that life is something that either:

(a) Struggles for entropy – Boltzmann, 1886.
(b) Feeds on negative entropy – Schrödinger, 1944.
(c) Consumes entropy – Lindsay, 1959.
(d) Lives on free energy – Perutz, 1987.

In this sense, the silly question becomes do we (as human beings) “struggle”, “feed”, “consume” entropy, or “live” on free energy? The only correct answer to this question is to ask: what do molecules (human molecules) do, in the thermodynamic system, during a Carnot cycle, because that is what happens.

To note, in 1987 commentary on Schrödinger’s What is Life?, American chemical engineer Linus Pauling noted that Schrödinger was discussing a change in the entropy of the "system", he never defined the system. In other words, one must first define both the system and the boundary, before speaking about either the entropy or the free energy of the system, living or not. Pauling wrote, "Sometimes he seems to consider that the system is a living organism with no interaction whatever with the environment; sometimes it is a living organism in thermal equilibrium with the environment; and sometimes it is the living organism plus the environment, that is, the universe as a whole." Pauling wrote that Schrödinger failed to recognize the most important question: "How biological specificity is achieved; that is, how the amino-acid residues are ordered into the well-defined sequence characteristic of the specific organism." [3]

In 2003, using what seems like a two-category answer (animate vs. inanimate), Danish theoretical chemist John Avery gives us the correct modern interpretation of the relation of Gibbs free energy to the interactions of molecules, by stating that: [5]

“When two molecules fit closely together, with their physical contours matching, and with complementary patterns of excess charge also matching, the Gibbs free energy of the total system is minimized … thus, the self-assembly of matching components proceeds spontaneously, just as every other chemical reaction proceeds spontaneously when the difference in Gibbs free energy between the products and the reactants is negative.”

Yet, when it comes to fitting together of larger sized molecules, such as bacteria molecules, animals, or human molecules (people), such as in the acts of reproduction, sex, or the movements of life in general, he uses a different answer, in particular: “Life maintains itself and evolves by feeding on Gibbs free energy … that enters the biosphere from outside sources.”

In 2008, Russian physical chemist Georgi Gladyshev argued that from the bio-physical perspective life can be characterized as a manifestation of one of the forms of existence of material, inherent with the rotation of the substance, which takes place under the action of energy flow, predominately solar energy. In the compressed general formulation, according to Gladyshev: [12]

“Life [is] the phenomenon of existence of the energy-dependent dynamic hierarchic structures, mandated by hierarchical thermodynamics.”

(add discussion)

The general difficulty in each of these entropy/negative-entropy/free energy theories, as stated above, is that the thermodynamic terms used are defined for systems of reactive molecules subjected to a heat gradient. Said another way, the term "free energy", for instance, is the measure of the reactive "affinity" felt between the atoms and molecules of the system and "entropy" is the amount of system energy consumed when the molecules of the system do work on each other irreversibly. As such, one must firstly define humans as “molecules”, i.e. human molecules, then define “boundaries” to the thermodynamic systems of study, on the surface of the earth, such as an ecosystem, a type of species, a small town, a group of friends, etc., and then define the factors of the "surroundings" that will affect the internal energy of the system. The difficulties involved in making these assignments are enormous. [6] When this is done, the illogic in all of the suggested what is life statements becomes apparent: Boltzmann - a system of molecules in a flask on a hot-plate (for instance) do not: ‘struggle for entropy’; Schrödinger - a system of molecules in a flask on a hot-plate (for instance) do not: ‘feed on negative entropy’; Perutz - a system of molecules in a flask on a hot-plate (for instance) do not: ‘live on free energy’; Avery - ‘free energy’ is not something that comes from outside the system. In 2001 American biophysicist Donald Haynie clearly stated that: “Any theory claiming to describe how organisms originate and continue to exist by natural causes must be compatible with the first and second laws of thermodynamics.” [7]

1. Boltzmann, Ludwig. (1886). The Second Law of Thermodynamics. In B. McGinness, ed., Ludwig Boltzmann: Theoretical physics and philosophical problems: Select Writings. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1974.
2. (a) Schrödinger, Erwin. (1944). What is Life? (ch. 6 “Order, Disorder, and Entropy). pgs. 67-75 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(b) What is Life? (1944 book in word doc download).
3. Pauling, Linus. (1987). "Schrödinger's contribution to chemistry and biology", pp. 225–233 in Schrödinger: Centenary Celebration of a Polymath, edited by C. W. Kilmister. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
4. Perutz, Max. (1987). “Erwin Schrödinger's What Is Life? and molecular biology”, pp. 234–251 in Schrödinger: Centenary Celebration of a Polymath, edited by C. W. Kilmister. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
5. Avery, John (2003). Information Theory and Evolution, (pg. 174, back matter). New Jersey: World Scientific.
7. Haynie, Donald. (2001). Biological Thermodynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
8. Sidis, William J. (1920). The Animate and the Inanimate, 131-pgs, (published in 1925, R.G. Badger).
9. Molton, Peter M. (1978). “Polymers to Living Cells: Molecules against Entropy”, J. Brit. Interplanet. Soc. 31, 147.
10. Johnstone, James. (1914). The Philosophy of Biology, (pg. 54). Cambridge: University Press.
11. (a) Lindsay, Robert B. (1959). “Entropy Consumption and Values in Physical Science”, American Scientist, Vol. 47, No. 3. Sept., pgs 376-85.
(b) Lindsay, Robert B. (1963). The Role of Science in Civilization, (section: "Information Theory and Thermodynamics: Entropy", pgs. 153-65; section: "A Scientific Analogy: The Thermodynamic Imperative", pgs. 290-98). Westport: Greenwood Press. Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross.
12. Gladyshev, Georgi, P. (2008). "What is Life: Bio-Physical Perspectives," Knol, Oct.;
(a) Zotin, Aleksandr I. “The Second Law, Negentropy, Thermodynamics of Linear Processes”, in: I. Lamprecht and Aleksandr I. Zotin, eds., Thermodynamics of Biological Processes (New York: de Gruyter, 1978), pg. 19.
(b) Davies, Paul. (1999). The 5th Miracle: the Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life (pg. 52). Orion Productions.

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