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Category : Book Reviews

Prop Head Reads: What is Life: How Chemistry Becomes Biology

By Stephen B. Schott

41xeCImG44L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_What is Life: How Chemistry Becomes Biology

Addy Pross

My friend Manoj recently said, “In 5 billion years, an atom learned to talk.”

This observation begs the question: How did the atom learn to talk? How did non-life become life?

Pross sets out to answer this question and in so doing addresses many obstacles, the largest of which is Newton’s second law of thermodynamics. If you’re unfamiliar with the second law of thermodynamics, it states that “In any cyclic process, the entropy will either increase or remain the same.” Some simplify it to state that ordered things tend towards chaotic over time and its inverse: Things that are chaotic will not tend towards order.

Take your kitchen. At some time, it is ordered: Every glass in the cupboard, every plate in its place. Over time, this ordered state (low entropy) will give way to more chaotic state (high entropy), where the plates have moved, cups shifted—and that’s even if your kids don’t move them around. Another way to think about the state of entropy in your kitchen is that there are only a few ways that it can be set up in an orderly way, while there are an infinite number of ways it can be in a chaotic state. Thus, there is a really small chance of a low entropy ordered state.

And yet living organisms are like the clean kitchen: Ordered and arrived at from an earth of 5 billion years ago that was a bundle of happy chaotic atoms. What would motivate, drive, or otherwise suddenly bring order to these atoms, swimming against the tide of the second law of thermodynamics, which is immutable in other contexts?

dreamstime_s_58460123Pross’s theory is that life is a natural consequence of the second law. Remember that the second law of thermodynamics permits low entropy ordered states, however improbable they may be. And what’s more, some of these low entropy ordered states may be highly persistent.

Pross discusses the example of certain chemical replicators. RNA, for example, is a nonliving complex chemical compound with an incredible property: It can create copies of itself. What’s more, in creating these copies, it also creates RNA variants of itself. Some of those RNA variants are better at replicating than the original, and thus may replicate faster and cause the original RNA copies to disappear over time, leaving the RNA variants as the stable form of RNA.

What does RNA, this nonliving chemical do? Replicate, vary, compete, and stabilize. It evolves.

Evolution into something highly replicable and stable may thus be a natural manifestation of chemistry. And from this it is Pross’s theory that one of the natural steps in chemistry is that nonliving chemicals can form replicable and stable chemicals that we call life.

If you have questions, contact me.

If you want IdeaEsq delivered to your inbox, sign up for the daily or monthly newsletter.

Prop Head Reads: What is Life: How Chemistry Becomes Biology

By Stephen B. Schott

41xeCImG44L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_What is Life: How Chemistry Becomes Biology

Addy Pross

My friend Manoj recently said, “In 5 billion years, an atom learned to talk.”

This observation begs the question: How did the atom learn to talk? How did non-life become life?

Pross sets out to answer this question and in so doing addresses many obstacles, the largest of which is Newton’s second law of thermodynamics. If you’re unfamiliar with the second law of thermodynamics, it states that “In any cyclic process, the entropy will either increase or remain the same.” Some simplify it to state that ordered things tend towards chaotic over time and its inverse: Things that are chaotic will not tend towards order.

Take your kitchen. At some time, it is ordered: Every glass in the cupboard, every plate in its place. Over time, this ordered state (low entropy) will give way to more chaotic state (high entropy), where the plates have moved, cups shifted—and that’s even if your kids don’t move them around. Another way to think about the state of entropy in your kitchen is that there are only a few ways that it can be set up in an orderly way, while there are an infinite number of ways it can be in a chaotic state. Thus, there is a really small chance of a low entropy ordered state.

And yet living organisms are like the clean kitchen: Ordered and arrived at from an earth of 5 billion years ago that was a bundle of happy chaotic atoms. What would motivate, drive, or otherwise suddenly bring order to these atoms, swimming against the tide of the second law of thermodynamics, which is immutable in other contexts?

dreamstime_s_58460123Pross’s theory is that life is a natural consequence of the second law. Remember that the second law of thermodynamics permits low entropy ordered states, however improbable they may be. And what’s more, some of these low entropy ordered states may be highly persistent.

Pross discusses the example of certain chemical replicators. RNA, for example, is a nonliving complex chemical compound with an incredible property: It can create copies of itself. What’s more, in creating these copies, it also creates RNA variants of itself. Some of those RNA variants are better at replicating than the original, and thus may replicate faster and cause the original RNA copies to disappear over time, leaving the RNA variants as the stable form of RNA.

What does RNA, this nonliving chemical do? Replicate, vary, compete, and stabilize. It evolves.

Evolution into something highly replicable and stable may thus be a natural manifestation of chemistry. And from this it is Pross’s theory that one of the natural steps in chemistry is that nonliving chemicals can form replicable and stable chemicals that we call life.

If you have questions, contact me.

If you want IdeaEsq delivered to your inbox, sign up for the daily or monthly newsletter.

Prop Head Reads: The Martian and A Brief History of Time

by Stephen B. Schott
(You can view my non-prop-head book thoughts here)

martianThe Martian

by Andy Weir
(The Martian started as a personal blog writing project for Weir and its evolution from blog to book to a soon-to-be movie starring Matt Damon is a great story in itself.)

You know the scene in Apollo 13 where a bunch of engineers at NASA are locked in a room with a box of the supplies available to the astronauts and have 7 hours to figure out how to fix the filter or the astronauts die?

Well, there are generally two kinds of people. Those who have no connection to to the scene except a vague memory of it and those who think that scene is the best part of the movie.

If you’re in the latter camp, you will love this book.

Engineers and scientists usually don’t make for great novel heroes. To make them exciting, they get a Hollywood makeover and a flying tin suit that shoots lasers. And a supermodel girlfriend. But this book does the engineer hero justice: Showing off our hero’s wits (stranded alone on Mars) and those of the people back on Earth trying to help him stay alive.

The Martian (Mark Watney) approaches each of his many challenges with an engineer’s ingenuity and even if you can’t follow all the science, you’ll appreciate his mind and attitude. If his unfailing problem solving seems a little hard to believe at times, watch an action hero dodge automatic weapon fire in an action movie and tell me which is the greater exaggeration.

A gripping original.

hawkingA Brief History of Time

by Stephen Hawking

This was my 3rd attempt at this book. I finished it this time. I have to ask myself on your behalf, dear reader, “Why would you give 5 stars to a book that you could barely comprehend and could not finish 2 other times?” First, I’ll start from the premise that I have to take on some faith: Hawking knows what he’s talking about. Working from that premise, I felt reassured and on comfortable ground as he reviewed quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, strong and weak forces, and lots of the Einsteinian stuff that it has taken me years to absorb (and that I was better at when I could do all the math).

Second, building from those premises that I am comfortable with, Hawking helped me move the ball forward on the idea of multidimensional space, the event horizon (I finally get this, thanks to Hawking), the concept of time and the Big Bang, the stability of the universe, and the time arrows he discusses towards the end.

But man, there’s some stuff that still escapes me, all these years after first studying them even when I still had the big math muscles. (1) There’s much around black holes I still don’t get. Hawking is the Mr. Miyagi of black holes in the physics world but he can talk all day about spherical black holes, spinning black holes, etc., and whoosh, right over my head. (2) The idea of imaginary time and the sum of histories. I understand the latter a little bit mostly because I remember the math that describes them that made the universe explicable, but conceptually outside the math I really don’t grasp these even a little. (3) Really, again I have to deal with virtual particles and spins? Whoosh again.

This book is not for the faint of heart. If you want a shorter and more accessible trip through physics, try Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces and Six Not So Easy Pieces books. Both are incredible and not as dense. The former explores Newtonian physics (anyone can get those concepts), the latter Einsteinian theories and quantum mechanics, which require a deeper preparedness.

If you have questions, contact me.

If you want IdeaEsq delivered to your inbox, sign up for the daily or monthly newsletter.