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On the statistical mechanics of life: Schrödinger revisited

Jeffery, K; Pollack, R; Rovelli, C; (2019) On the statistical mechanics of life: Schrödinger revisited. Entropy , 21 (12) , Article 1211. 10.3390/e21121211. Green open access

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Abstract

We study the statistical underpinnings of life, in particular its increase in order and complexity over evolutionary time. We question some common assumptions about the thermodynamics of life. We recall that contrary to widespread belief, even in a closed system entropy growth can accompany an increase in macroscopic order. We view metabolism in living things as microscopic variables directly driven by the second law of thermodynamics, while viewing the macroscopic variables of structure, complexity and homeostasis as mechanisms that are entropically favored because they open channels for entropy to grow via metabolism. This perspective reverses the conventional relation between structure and metabolism, by emphasizing the role of structure for metabolism rather than the converse. Structure extends in time, preserving information along generations, particularly in the genetic code, but also in human culture. We argue that increasing complexity is an inevitable tendency for systems with these dynamics and explain this with the notion of metastable states, which are enclosed regions of the phase-space that we call “bubbles,” and channels between these, which are discovered by random motion of the system. We consider that more complex systems inhabit larger bubbles (have more available states), and also that larger bubbles are more easily entered and less easily exited than small bubbles. The result is that the system entropically wanders into ever-larger bubbles in the foamy phase space, becoming more complex over time. This formulation makes intuitive why the increase in order/complexity over time is often stepwise and sometimes collapses catastrophically, as in biological extinction.

Type: Article
Title: On the statistical mechanics of life: Schrödinger revisited
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.3390/e21121211
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.3390/e21121211
Language: English
Additional information: This is an open access article under the CC BY license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Keywords: life and entropy; metastable states; channels; extinctions
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences > Experimental Psychology
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10087495
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