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No. 138: NOV-DEC 2001

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Life As A Complex Of "Dominant States"

To say that life is an "emergent property" of matter seems to have no more explanatory power than any of the other "origin" scenarios. It is less than satisfying. Be that as it may, scientists are now seeing some strange things happening on the "mesoscopic" scale; i.e., from a few nanometers to a few millimeters (10-9 to 10-3 meters). This size range lies between the realms of quantum mechanics and macroscopic physics. Maybe these curious phenomena do have a bearing on how life started and whether it is really different from nonlife.

Example 1.

G. Whitesides, at Harvard, has dumped large quantities of millimeter-size iron balls into a plastic dish and then spun a bar magnet under the ensemble with startling results.

The balls swarm around inside the plastic dish as the magnet rotates. At first the swarm is disordered. But after a minute, it breaks up into a set of concentric rotating rings. Within each ring, the balls follow one another along precise tracks, as if hugging the rim of an invisible roulette wheel. Soon the balls in each track are perfectly equidistant. Finally, one ball in each ring comes to a dead stop. The other balls in each track line up behind the leader in a tiny arc, even though the magnet is still whirling away below.

Example 2.

In water, large, fatty molecules (phospholipids) are observed to self-assemble into double layers with their water-loving bonds pointing outwards. This sort of structure closely resembles that of the biological membranes so vital to terrestrial life. This potentially biologically useful structure self-assembles!

It seems that on the mesoscopic scale, under certain conditions, ensembles of particles (e.g., iron balls and large molecules) may snap into "dominant states" that exhibit unexpected properties.

In this context Nobelist R. Laughlin remarks:

The discoveries that matter are the grand surprises that occur when matter organizes itself.

Of course, the question has always been whether something "special" or "vital" has to be done to an ensemble of molecules to confer life upon it. In his Darwin's Black Box, M. Behe insists that life is irreducibly complex and requires intelligent design. (Designer unidentified!) This is seen as a cop-out by most scientists who are searching for "natural" (designerless) explanations for those "emergent" properties of matter -- such as life.

To this end, H. Frauenfelder and P. Wolynes, both at the University of California at San Diego, have been mapping the "energy landscape" of proteins as these long chains of amino acids fold into the incredibly complex shapes required by their functions in life forms. They find energy peaks and valleys are crossed as the chains writhe and fold-- often with blinding speed -- from one energy state to another, the nascent proteins "funnel" toward the minimum energy states that characterize the proteins that are capable of taking on biological tasks.

This funnelling is an emergent property of matter that leads to the final "dominant state": a protein or some other biochemical.

(Irion, Robert; "Say the Magic Words," New Scientist, p. 32, June 7, 2001.)

Comment. Proteins are the workhorses of terrestrial life forms. By gross extrapolation of the protein energy-landscape model, we could say that life forms are merely complexes of multitudinous dominant states and are, in effect, superdominant-states.

This speculation is fun, but the WHY of this whole business still eludes us. And we wonder if "emergent property" really doesn't mean "life force"!

From Science Frontiers #138, NOV-DEC 2001. 2001 William R. Corliss

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