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What is Life?

What is Life?

In 1943, the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger stood up in Trinity College Dublin and delivered what might be described as the biggest scientific disappointment of the century. His work on quantum mechanics, which so beautifully explained the nature of matter, failed to explain the material workings of a cell. We are made from nothing more than the elements in the Periodic Table, and this leads to the most fundamental question in science; “How do elements change into living things, and ultimately, us?”

As Abbott, Davis, Pati write in Quantum Aspects of Life, “To be sure, quantum mechanics is indispensable for explaining the shapes, sizes and chemical affinities of biological molecules. From the point of view of fundamental physics however, life remains deeply mysterious. Life still seems an almost magical state of matter; furthermore, its origins from non-living chemicals is not understood at all.” (Imperial College Press, 2008)

Our proposition is that the mystery is not so mysterious after all. The problem is a systemic misinterpretation of reality. It lies not in the verified findings of generations of brilliant scientists, but in Western scientific dogma and tradition. It lies in the traditional scientific perspective, that the universe works according to the laws of cause and effect, and that there must always be an underlying physical cause of every action. Western scientific tradition dictates that the laws of physics must underpin everything we observe.

It is our interpretation of the data that has prevented us from being able to describe ‘life’ scientifically. We have good mathematical models for the chaotic, complex and self-organizing behavior of matter, but the models have nothing to do with the fundamental laws of physics. This is true at the atomic and gravitational scales, and we have not connected the two, because they are studied in different university departments.

In 1687, Newton found that the predictable laws of physics only worked for two bodies in space. Worse still, in 1887 Poincaré wrote a mathematical proof showing there are no equations which could predict the motions of three equal size bodies in space. In his theory of General Relativity from 1916, Einstein asks us to see distortions of space as the reason the Earth moves around the Sun, where bodies in space are ‘forced’ to follow mathematical curves, and only collide if the curves meet: there is no ‘physical’ attraction. Likewise, magnetic and electrical fields have no physical part. As physicists Julian Schwinger and Michael Faraday have pointed out, fields are a property of space – and space has no physical structure, only mathematical properties.

Simple actions in nature can be described by the mathematics of traditional physics; and complex actions, of the same physical components, can be described by the mathematics of chaos and complexity. Mathematics is the only realm of science which is self consistent and describes everything. The axioms in Euclid’s Elements are as true today as when they were written 2300 years ago. Mathematical Proofs are absolute, and Poincare’s proof that there are no equations from physics to predict the motion of three bodies in space, means that the fundamental laws of physics can never be used to explain the chaotic, complex or self-organizing behavior of matter in the Solar System.

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