Interesting And Expansive Definition Of Life—No Matter How Stupid Everything May Seem, We All Have The Ability To Think Deep Thoughts
I recently read an interesting definition of life in New Scientist magazine.
New Scientist is a challenging and accessible weekly that I subscribe to in print and on-line.
We all merit things that both respect our intelligence and that are accessible.
This definition of life was put forth in an interview by a Australian cosmologist named Charlie Lineweaver.
Here is a portion of the interview from New Scientist–
So how would you define life?
To the extent that the question makes sense, as a “far-from-equilibrium dissipative system”.
What do you mean by that?
A system that feeds on the free energy associated with the gradients in the environment. For example, a hurricane is a dissipative structure because it feeds on the free energy of air pressure, humidity and thermal gradients. Hurricanes dissipate the free energy – they undo the gradients and bring the environment closer to equilibrium. That’s what life is. We take chemical energy and undo it – move it closer to equilibrium.
By your definition, a hurricane and a star are both alive. Are you really saying that?
If you want to chain me to a black and white view, then yes, I am. The distinction between far-from-equilibrium dissipative systems and near-equilibrium features is clearer than the traditional boundaries that people put on life and non-life…
I’m far from being a scientist af any kind. I’m a lowly blogger. But I’ve been thinking about this definition of life for a few days now.
What this Lineweaver gentleman seems to be saying is that anything that draws energy from the environment–whether that environment be terrestrial or up in space—is life of a kind.
While the article does not address the subject, I wonder if this concept might make an airplane or an automobile a type of life. If that seems odd, don’t we often consider the idea that machines could at some point act in an autonomous way? Don’t machines more and more each day mimic what we thought before were things that only people could do?
(When I use the word “autonomous” I mean to the extent that anything is autonomous in an existence in which everything is interdependent on something else.)
The interview with Professor Lineweaver has gotten me to thinking about the value and nature of any entity or system that changes or has some impact of one kind or another.
Professor Lineweaver uses the term “chemical energy.” But for the purposes of our day-to-day lives why limit our ideas even to that broad framework?
We sometimes talk about situations and issues that “take on a life of their own.”
Maybe that common has phrase has more meaning than we realize.
There is such vitality all around us and this vitality is present every day.
All people have the ability to see the world around us in many unique and intellectually valid ways.
The expansive concept of life put forth by Professor Lineweaver can be used as a helpful point of reference in your own ideas about life, energy, change and existence. This can be so even if you have to read the interview a few times like I did to get a more clear idea of what he was saying.
No matter how idiotic so much of life is each day, we all have the ability to think deep thoughts and to apply our thoughts to everyday life.
Climate Change May Raise The Prospects Of East African Drought And Famine—American Conservatives Do Not Care
A recent article in New Scientist said that changing weather patterns have increased the chance for recurring drought in East Africa.
(Above–Oxfam photo of a family gathering firewood in drought-stricken Kenya in 2011.)
“Last year’s drought occurred because both of the region’s rainy seasons failed. We already know that the trigger for the failure of the “short rains”, between October and December 2010, was La Niña - a cyclical meteorological event caused by a pulse of cool water rising to the surface of the eastern Pacific Ocean. But efforts to work out why the “long rains” that occur between March and May fail have drawn a blank – until now.
Bradfield Lyon and David DeWitt of Columbia University in New York examined records of the long rains and found that they have been much more likely to fail since 1999. That year also marked a sharp rise in sea-surface temperatures in the western tropical Pacific Ocean, while further east the ocean cooled.”
The story goes on to very clearly state that the reasons for the prospect of recurring drought in East Africa are by no means the definite result of man-made climate change. The article says that studies are now ongoing to see if the droughts are naturally occurring, are influenced by human activity, or are caused by some combination of these two factors.
(It should also be noted that some of the problems of famine in Somalia have been caused by Islamic insurgent groups stopping shipments of food.)
The thing is that here in the United States one of the two major political parties won’t even allow all the needed research to take place, and won’t even consider the prospect that man-made climate change is for real.
And if a bunch of people in Africa die so we don’t have to change our lives in any way, or so we can retain the ideological purity of the Republican Party—Then I guess that is the way it goes.
A recent Oxfam report says that global response to the 2011 famine drought in East Africa was very slow in starting, and that many lives were lost as a consequence.
Here is how to make a donation to Oxfam for famine relief. I just made a small donation as it seemed the thing to do to back up my post.
Another thing we can all do in the United States is to ask our political leaders to at least be open to the prospect of climate change, and to support the necessary research to determine the facts.
We are not the only people in the world. What we do impacts others.
New Scientist magazine reports that Pluto may have an ocean.
(Above—A rendering of what might look like on the surface of Pluto. This image comes from the European Southern Observatory.)
“PLUTO could hide a liquid ocean beneath its icy shell. Indeed, other bodies on the solar system’s frigid fringe could also harbour subsurface oceans, and these could provide the conditions to sustain life. Temperatures on Pluto’s surface hover around -230 °C, but researchers have long wondered whether the dwarf planet might boast enough internal heat to sustain a liquid ocean under its icy exterior. Now Guillaume Robuchon and Francis Nimmo at the University of California, Santa Cruz, say there is a good chance it does.”
New Scientist is a great resource. I subscribe to the print edition.
There are other bodies in our Solar System. Jupiter’s moon Europa likely has an ocean.
The New Horizons space probe is currently flying out towards Pluto. Here is the New Horizons web site from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
This mission was launched in 2006 and will reach Pluto in 2015. This is the first mission ever to Pluto.
A great book to learn about this history of the various satellites and missions that humans have blasted off into space beginning with Sputnik in 1957 is Jane’s Space Recognition Guide by Peter Bond.
As the pace of discoveries out in space picks up, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives want to cut funding for the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. This project would be known as the James Webb Space Telescope.
There has been some dispute about if Pluto is a planet or not. Pluto is not currently classified as a planet. It is now termed as a “dwarf planet.”
I don’t find this dispute very interesting. Here is a National Geographic story on this issue.
Despite the ice exterior, Pluto may have an internal source of warmth. This is yet further proof that no matter how a person may appear or seem on the outside, you never know what they are thinking or how they will act.
I had jury duty recently here in Harris County, Texas.
I attended this jury duty just as all citizens should do when they get a summons.
I was not picked for a trial.
Attending jury duty does not mean you assume that people on trial in the courthouse will get a fair shake. I think that many are wary about justice in harris County and in Texas.
What it means is that you have been called do your civic duty, and you have to do that just like any other citizen.
If you don’t want to go for some moral or ethical reason, then make that known and accept the consequences.
Above you see some of the things I took to jury duty. I was prepared to sit in the big jury assembly room for as long as required. I did end up in that room for over two hours.
I had a book and two magazines. The book I had was The President Makers: The Culture of Politics & Leadership in the Age of Enlightenment 1896-1919. This book, published in 1940, is by Matthew Josepheson.
I had two magazines. I had a baseball preview magazine and a copy of the excellent New Scientist.
I also had a copy of the United States Constitution. I carry the Constitution with me all times. We can’t allow Tea Party/Republican Party extremists to make off with our founding documents. The Constitution is a flexible document able to adapt to the needs of society as times change.
Do you think that people who have been dead for 200 years now could have fully imagined the world as it is today? We can move forward without losing the freedoms and rights that we have long held in our nation. To insist otherwise is to offer a false choice.
You’ll please note that there is a necktie in the picture above.
I wore a tie to jury duty. What could merit greater respect than our common society?
Not many of the men were wearing ties in the jury hall.
I don’t see what is casual about deciding the fates of fellow human beings.
This is could be seen as a somewhat conservative position on my part. Yet when our so-called “conservatives” are in fact radicals, and when so much day-to-day conduct is characterized by ill- disciplined and ignorant behavior, it often falls upon the liberal to preserve and defend what is best in our society.
Please go to jury duty when you get a summons. Please dress for jury duty in way that suggests you respect others and that you respect yourself.
A recent article in New Scientist magazine says human beings are not as unique as they imagine.
Above is a photo of sheep living in Austria. Here is a story about the minds of sheep.
The article says animals have newly discovered and surprising abilities in ways people once thought as specific to humans.
For example, killer whales have been found to have distinct ways of communicating and hunting depending on if they live in a stable pod or are more transient. This speaks to culture among non-human species.
Some chimps use tools. Many people have seen the pictures of chimps using sticks to fish termites out of the termite mound. This is an example of tool use by animals.
Elephants grieve for dead herd members. Many animals have been noted for apparently emotional reactions. Humans are not the only species that experience emotion.
Beyond culture, tool use and emotion, some animals may possess distinctive personalities, morality, and the ability to understand the mind and intent of another.
Humans are clearly unique.
We are just not as special as we figure.
Who is as special as they figure?
They say they don’t need money
They’re living on nuts and berries
They say animals don’t worry
You know animals are hairy?
They think they know what’s best
They’re making a fool of us
They ought to be more careful
They’re setting a bad example
They have untroubled lives
They think everything’s nice
They like to laugh at people
They’re setting a bad example