Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word life ?

  1. Aug 23, 2010 #1
    Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    Everything is just physics including "life" so why not present it that way? It's all interacting particles, some interactions are just more complex than others. Why categorize things as living or non-living? What does it add to the discussion?

    What difference does it make if a virus is "alive" or not? It's neither, it just is. It does what it does regardless of what you call it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 23, 2010 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    Can you support this statement? You allege it as if it were some obvious truth.

    Take a human and reduce to a collection of constituent atoms in a glass beaker (your quarks and electrons). It seems rather obvious that something has got lost in this reduction to a collection of physical substance. The physical form. So as a scientist, you need a theory about form, about organisation and complexity.
  4. Aug 23, 2010 #3
    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    That's the best explanation we have.

    Sure....but it's just degrees of complexity, not something new. To classify it as altogether different muddies the waters.
  5. Aug 23, 2010 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    The ability to efficiently convey complex ideas through verbal and written communication.
  6. Aug 23, 2010 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    Says who exactly? It wouldn't be biologists.

    Again that is just an opinion which you need to support.

    Biologists would take it as obvious that there is something different about complexity - it is not just complication.

    A beaker of chemicals is just a complicated mixture, not a complex one. Complex processes are characterised by development and self-organisation. They actually are fundamentally different.
  7. Aug 23, 2010 #6
    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    You get to know the emerging properties better and make progress and consequently have a better life. Otherwise, continuing this line of reasoning, what difference does ANYTHING make? We are all going to die anyway, whether everything is made of quarks, of cement or of the thoughts of god.
  8. Aug 23, 2010 #7
    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    It is presented that way. I have in front of me the book "Biology" by Neil Campbell, a typical biology 101 textbook. In the table of contents, I read:

    Chapter 2. Atoms, Molocules and Chemical Bonds

    Chapter 2 is divided into sections:
    Matter: Elements and Compounds
    The Structure and behavior of atoms
    Chemical Bonds and Molecules
    Chemical Reactions

    What more can they do for you?
  9. Aug 24, 2010 #8
    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    Life is a really interesting notion considering how many organisms and organism states/functions get recognized as life. Why are non-living thinks categorized as such? Does it have to do with something about the processes, ingredients, or resemblance to other things classified as living? "Organic" material seems to refer to both living and non-living materials produced by life processes, but can artificially created tissues, fertilizers, etc. be consider artificial organics?
  10. Aug 24, 2010 #9


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    You are again already looking for the explanation in terms of substance. What is it about a molecule that makes it living or non-living, organic or inorganic?

    A systems approach sees reality as the interaction of local substance and global form. So the stress is on process (the interaction). And thermodynamics probably gives us our best "physical foundation" for framing these kinds of questions. You have entropy/information as our generalised (and dichotomous!) notion of substance. Then you have the second law of thermodynamics and its subsidiary laws (such as maximum entropy production principle or MEPP) that are our generalised notion of form.

    So this then allows you to talk in general terms about dissipative structures and self-organised criticality and other scientific models of developmental process.

    All structured activity in the natural world is bound by the second law. Whether we are talking living or non-living, if it is a system, it is a dissipative structure. A tornado or dust-devil are non-living examples of things that are born, develop and die as they dissipate entropy gradients.

    Life clearly adds something to what is going on. The best way to describe it (following Howard Pattee) is that life involves the rate independent control over rate dependent processes. A tornado or other un-controlled developmental process just burns itself out at whatever rate is natural given the context - the slope of the entropy gradient it happens to find itself upon.

    But life has memory mechanisms like DNA which can encode information (negentropy) in a rate independent fashion. A tornado encodes information only in its moment-to-moment structure (the order that is vortical motion). But life is about finding a place to put structural information to one side of a developmental process and so opening up the new possibility of controlling it, harnessing the action.

    DNA does this rather directly by tossing in enzymes. Metabolic pathways are self-organising dissipative structures which simply express a natural rate. But enzymes can change the rate at which a process goes to equilibrium - burns itself out.

    I'm sure you actually know all the basic biology. But the point is that we cannot see anything to distinguish the organic from the inorganic if we are just focused on the notion of material substance.

    We have to take a systems view that deals in both substance and form. The most basic or physical version of systems thinking these days is thermodynamics. It has invented a notion of substance which is itself dichotomistic - signal~noise, or information~entropy. And it has framed some absolute laws, although this is still a work in progress as debate about the status of MEPP and dissipative structure theory shows.

    Note how the laws of thermodynamics - the general model of form - are also dichotomous. We have the laws for closed systems (or isolated ones if we are being strict) and laws for open ones. This distinction does not actually work that well and is likely to be replaced eventually by a more basic division between equilbrium structures (or processes) that are changing/expanding and ones that are static/unchanging.

    There is a curious thing going on. People are naturally obsessed by what is fundamental. And they take that to mean "the very small", "the irreducible substances of existence". So they are looking for ultimate answers in terms of particles. Yet as soon as you talk about atoms, you need their antithesis too - the void. So we end up with dichotomous substance (the vacuum as a condensate of virtual particles). And a striving for a final ToE, a quantum field theory that includes even an atomised gravity (the shape of spacetime).

    Yet thermodynamics is creeping around behind all this search for the ultimate eternal stuff. It has reframed substance as information~entropy. It is working towards broad laws of form. It has already become the heart of cosmology (event horizons, black holes, inflationary phase transitions). And cosmology is of course the systems-scale view of what is fundamental.

    So the answer to the OP is that again, focusing on substance as the answer to all questions is not even "physics" anymore.

    But perhaps the situation is not so surprising when you consider that thermodynamics in its modern sense is still so new and unfamiliar. QM and relativity have been around nearly a century. Yet people still seem to find them disturbing and seek refuge in the comfort of 300 year old mechanics, atomism and determinism of classical physics.

    Thermodynamics - of the paradigm shifting kind I'm talking about - is a revolution perhaps barely 30 years old. I am thinking of the advances of condensed matter physics, chaos theory, complexity theory, infodynamics, dissipative structure theory, event horizon cosmology, non-extensive entropy - a whole bunch of inter-related stuff that is still really clicking into place as a new broad view of reality.

    Once more, why aren't people more aware of what is happening right now? I guess relativity and QM were obviously revolutions as they directly predicted new observations about the very small and very large. They quickly showed we could not extrapolate from the world we thought we knew to the extremes of scale.

    Thermodynamics does not offer that same level of immediate shock to our preconceptions. We already knew the world was more complex, more of a developmental process, and thermodynamics has quietly been confirming that.

    I would say we way over-reacted to the surprises of QM and are way under-reacting to deeper truths of thermodynamics. Interesting times.
  11. Sep 1, 2010 #10
    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    apeiron, I am always enjoying your posts. The way you write makes so much sense either it's about something simple or complex.

    If you are writing a (e)book, or have already published it, on whatever topic, I'd very much interested in reading it.

    I'd like to say, that IMO as well, a process is way more important than initial set of data/matter/energy/whatever.

    It is a process which creates everything existing. Knowing fundamental particles, either we ever discover those "irreducible substances of existence" or not, doesn't really matter, what happens with them and how, is way more important. ("Why?" might even be a pointless question if/when we discover "how".)

    apeiron, may I ask you about your thoughts on Cellular Automata as seen by author of Mathematica Stephen Wolfram? He proposed that there is perhaps a special Cellular Automata rule which give rise to existence, this Universe... (BTW, I've come to find his idea after I had a very similar one. Which came to me following a thought that a bit of information, a state of true/false, is the most fundamental particle of existence.)

    Most interesting thing about CA to me is, that randomness can arise out of very simple set of mathematic rules. Well, if it's true randomness or not, I don't know, but he does use CA as random number generator in his Mathematica program, which is way better than all known computer algorithms, on par with analog devices using white noise and alike methods.

    And to provide my answer to this thread main question, I'd say that life might indeed be based on quarks and electrons, but when life "happens" it's way more than just quarks and electrons, a new form of "existence" arises out of fundamental particles, on top of them, as a new layer, or dare I say, dimension, and this is due to some special processes of nature, which are, obviously, still largely unknown to us -- no simple life organisms were ever created in laboratories... one day, perhaps.
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2010
  12. Sep 1, 2010 #11
    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    humans have properties that animals in general lack
    animals have properties that living things in general lack
    living systems have properties that material systems in general lack

    Yes very simple rules can result in chaos.
    You might want to look up 'laws of form' or 'box arithmetic'

    the central idea of laws of form is that of the 'distinction'. Why? Well imagine a single bit existing in the very beginning all alone. this bit divides into 2 which divide into 4 and so on forever. Seems pretty simple doesnt it? But why wouldnt all the bits just be the same? Why are they distingishable? The idea is that the act of dividing itself is somehow an act of distinguishing between the distinguisher and the distinguishee. Or something like that. Anyway the result is chaos. And then somehow the universe results from that. Thats the theory as I understand it.
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2010
  13. Sep 1, 2010 #12


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Since everything is made of quarks and electrons, why use the word "life"?

    CAs seem too limited to be a better way of modelling reality. As a model. they are overly constrained, their dimensionality or internal degrees of freedom, too reduced. They are a step less reduced than Turing computers, but still too reduced. How does time arise naturally in a CA world, for instance? How could a CA world reproduce the non-locality that we know to be a feature of reality? As models, CAs may have their applications, but I don't see them as being a general model of reality, the kind of paradigm shift Wolfram was advertising.

    However, his book is full of lots of good stuff on network theory. And networks do have less constraints, more freedoms, and seem thus a closer approximation to the balance struck by the 3+1D real world. (Hierarchies of course are networks of networks).

    The whole randomness issue is interesting. My take is that global constraints (such as encoded in a simple algorithm) will constrain what they can "see", and then the remaining degrees of freedom will by definition be the "unseen" action. If the remaining degrees of freedom are orthogonal, by definition they will also be completely unseen, unconstrained, and so a generator of "maximum randomness".

    This is what is going on with chaos. Because errors multiply non-linearly, they can't be "seen" from the linear realm of the iterative equation and its measurements, its picture of the initial conditions.

    Fractals and other kinds of "random" systems are thus a case where global constraints and local freedoms are in a constant balance, a stable equilibrium. Constraints attempt to restrict what is happening, while the remaining degrees of freedom keep expressing themselves freely.

    CAs would be just one of many ways of setting up situations where the global constraints and local freedoms are in such a balance. The CAs that turn out to be tuned to having this randomness generating balance would have to have this exact orthogonality between their constraints and their freedoms. (And knowing whether this orthogonality is exact would be crucial to knowing whether the generator was fully "random".)

    Furthermore, if his CA can indeed maintain a dynamic balance over time (the CA continually regenerates the same constraints despite the "disruptive surprise" of the free action involved at every step) then this might actually be a "slo mo" simplified model of what I'm talking about when it comes to self-organising hierarchical complexity. Hmm. Might have to go read Wolfram again in this new light. :smile:

    On information itself, I describe it as the atomisation of form. So it is a way of turning the idea of form (or global constraint) into substance (or local freedom). It creates a common mathematical currency that allows a simpler modelling of reality.

    A bit is the most constrained state you can imagine. And of course it is dichotomous. There are exactly two states, two degrees of freedom. You either have something or nothing, 1 or 0, atom or void.

    Again, it is no accident that modern thought has arrived at a fundamental duality. Things always do reduce to dyads, never to monads.

    However, this is still an over-reduction in my book as 1 and 0 are a simple split symmetry - two equal sized microstates. And my systems perspective is based on a reduction to a local~global asymmetry. So to a view which is microstate~macrostate.

    This does not mean that information - the bit - is not a useful concept. Indeed, it is very powerful. But it then has to be handled in a way that fits it into a systems view, not taken at face value as a "true model" or reality. So statements like "all is information" or "it from bit" are dangerous slogans.

    I would rather say things like "local bit from global constraint". And - my goodness, like QM finds with HUP and complementarity - when you constrain locales to the theoretical max, you discover you cannot get below a crisp two-ness.

    I think this is looking like a fundamental law. Constraint maximised can reduce local degrees of freedom to a dichotomy, but no further. Orthogonal pairings rule and so create a fundamental "plankian" grain. Monads are impossible.

    I almost hate to mention the fact that a range of quantum gravity approaches, such as CDT and AS, are finding that dimensionality strangely crumbles into 2D at the plankian limit of constraint.

    But thanks for stimulating a useful train of thought this morning. :cool:
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook