Paul Davies

[It took me well over a week to write this all down. The best way to digest this information is to consume it in podcast form and read the transcript for clarity. I thought the podcast was so information-packed that it took me 19 revisions and 2785 words to put this all down. I started with in-depth exploration in the beginning but took to compressing ideas into paragraphs later. There’s still a lot that I don’t understand about the subject. Writing this also kept me away from writing any other post in the meanwhile. My thanks to Mat Kaplan for this wonderful interview. – Pradeep]

Paul Davies is the Regents’ Professor of Physics and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. He is a physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and author who has written thirty books.

The following is my podcast notes of the interview that Mat Kaplan did with Paul Davies for Planetary Radio [+transcript]. They are talking at University of California San Diego’s Arthur C Clarke Center for Human Imagination studio. This is a huge podcast episode at almost an hour and ten minutes. The podcast discusses his latest book, The Demon in the Machine: How hidden webs of information are solving the mystery of life (Amazon Affiliate Link).

Photo by Ahmad Fikri on Pexels.com

Context

Kaplan first tries to understand the context in which this book is written. There is a fundamental difference that we see in Living Matter and Non-living Matter. Davies suggests that this fundamental difference is information. He gives us an equation to understand this:

Life = Matter + Information

Paul Davies

Davies suggests that the present Physics cannot provide a solution for helping us understand this issue. We need or need to discover a new Physics to understand the problem. We need to dive back into some history for this context.

History of Context

The hero of this story is Erwin Schrodinger (famous more for his thought experiment with a cat). Schrodinger is an Austrian who succeeds Max Planck in 1927 in Berlin. In 1933, he leaves Germany and moves to England. He is invited to Ireland to establish Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin by the then Prime Minister of Ireland, Éamon de Valera. He moved to Clontarf, Dublin as Director of the School for Theoretical Physics in 1940. He stays here for another 17 years. Ireland is neutral during World War II. He gives what are a string of lectures about life (in the biological sense). Davies calls Biology the next frontier of Physics.

Schrodinger is the architect of Quantum Mechanics. His theory works really well for non-living matter. It explains almost everything from atoms to stars. Where it does not explain things is when it comes to living matter. In 1944, these are compiled into a book called What is Life? This book has an immense influence on the field of molecular biology.

In 1944, he wrote What Is Life?, which contains a discussion of negentropy and the concept of a complex molecule with the genetic code for living organisms. According to James D. Watson’s memoir, DNA, the Secret of Life, Schrödinger’s book gave Watson the inspiration to research the gene, which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix structure in 1953. Similarly, Francis Crick, in his autobiographical book What Mad Pursuit, described how he was influenced by Schrödinger’s speculations about how genetic information might be stored in molecules.

From the Wikipedia entry on Erwin Schrodinger

Davies says that biologists however got distracted and involved in the field of molecular biology and lost track of the bigger picture. In the past two decades, the focus has gone back to the bigger picture.

Information is the secret sauce…

What differentiates non-living matter and living matter is the information. Davies says that the use of the word information here differs significantly from the way we talk about information in our daily life. He says that when defined in Physics, information becomes a part of the laws of physics much like energy does. Information enters Physics through the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Here, we go further into the past. We go to the mid-nineteenth century. James Clerk Maxwell who was working on concept of heat at King’s College in London. In a letter he sent to a friend, he asked that his friend consider a diminutive being that could see and follow molecules. The being could then use a shutter mechanism to sort fast and slow moving molecules. Slow and fast moving molecules determine temperature. So, by sorting the molecules, the being has created a difference in temperature. An engineer could, in principle create an engine that could do work. This being that Maxwell discusses is called Maxwell’s Demon. It is this demon that the title of Davies book references in the title of his book.

Maxwell’s suggestion created a perpetual motion machine, in effect and went against the First Law of Thermodynamics. In the podcast, Davies says it goes against the Second Law but then describes it as, “We can’t get something for nothing”. I think he’s going after the First Law. Maxwell’s thought stood as a thorny issue in Physics for a long time.

However, in the last two decades, scientists have been able to create these Maxwell demons at the nano level. However, they have not yet been able to scale it up. However, this introduces information into the realm of Physics.

Entropy

The Laws of Thermodynamics predicts that entropy (the level of chaos or disorder) in a system goes on increasing. However, information seems to reverse this trend in living systems. In the words of Schrodinger, “Order from order, evermore order.” This, is used as an example of a miracle.

However, Davies suggests that order in living systems is paid for by disorder in the environment. And so, overall, things are balanced. He says living beings are open systems. In Thermodynamics, that means a system that allows transfer of energy and mass.

Davies then jumps to the life at molecular level where Davies says that Maxwell demons are working to get the most thermodynamic efficiency in living systems. He now gives examples of this nearly 100% efficient Maxwell demons enabling replication of the DNA. The most exciting example that Davies cites for this efficiency is the human brain. A megawatt capability supercomputer is operating at such efficiency that it works at the energy level of a dim light bulb.

Original World Wide Web

In Biology, Davies says, information also plays a managerial or supervisory role. Information flow scales up from signalling (chemical, mechanical and electric) mechanisms between cells, to decision making among insects, to co-ordination between birds in a flock all the way up to the planetary scale. Another key Davies line spoken here is,

And I like to say that the biosphere is the original worldwide web.

Paul Davies

A New Physics

Davies says that the information flow in biological systems is more than just simple information flows. He says that information is encrypted and has to be decrypted for use by cells. Information has to be read and expressed in a certain way and biological systems express this. Physicists have not found a way to incorporate this into Biology and hence, this is where Davies think the New Physics that he thinks is required will come from. Information makes a difference to the way that an organism behaves. Davies thinks this has a physical effect.

Complexity

Davies now arrives at the topic of complexity of biological beings. Kaplan discusses his high school biology experience of the complexity involved in a single cell. Davies responds by saying that scientists don’t have a way to measure the complexity at say the level of the biosphere or even the organism. He says we don’t yet know if the complexity increased with time or is there a fundamental law that defines the growth of complexity and other problems related to Complexity. However, he says at the root of it all are atoms, whose Physics we know well.

[To me personally, there seems to be a relationship between Complexity and Entropy.]

Davies says however that talking about things at the molecular level and then seeking to get answer about complexity has a parallel in the world of computer science. A scientist trying to explain complexity in terms of molecules would be like a software engineer trying to explain his code at the level of electrons flowing through computer hardware. Davies says that there are people like Paul Nurse who are seeking to explain Complexity in a language and precise terms of code that software engineer uses.

Epigenetics

Kaplan asks about the change in our understanding genes express themselves as the understanding of DNA not as a ROM but as a read/write memory. Davies says that there has been a change in Biology in the last 30 years. He says that people have moved away from the assumption that genetics alone explains life. Expression of the genes also plays an important role. This is explored in the field of Epigenetics.

Things like an external physical force, physical environment, growth of cell in space, etc. seem to affect how the genes express themselves and this has an impact on how cell structure or the organism grows and develops. So, genes are somehow expressing themselves differently based on the information about their surroundings.

Davies cites the work of Cheryl Nickerson at Arizona State University in the impact of gut bacteria in astronauts. He says that the bacteria that are passive on Earth’s surface somehow get active in the environment of weightlessness and makes an astronaut throw up.

Davies also cites the work of Mike Levin at Tufts University who works with planaria worms. He says that planaria worms are cut at different parts of the body and they grow back up in the correct way. He says that using electrical patterning, they are able to grow worms with two heads, two tails etc. He says this proves that something more than just genes has a role to play in the way genes express themselves.

Information Flows

Davies says that Physics inherently has a bottom up structure of explaining things. Biology, on the other hand, explains things both ways, in terms of bottoms up and from the up down to the bottom. He says that Physics needs a way to do this. Davies says that thinking of information flows may be the simplest way of doing this. A cell gets information about its environment from the organism and changes the way it expresses itself. Things like electronics and gravity seem to affect the expression of the genes of a cell.

As an example, Davies says that in eukaryotic cells, the genes are in the chromosomes. There is complex structure and mechanism within the chromosomes that switches on and off the genes that get expressed depending on the environment.

Darwinism 2.0

Darwin suggested that the mutation in the organisms that evolved was random. Davies suggests it is not. He says that at the cellular level, that the way cells edit their genes have been shown to be statistically non-random. He says that Epigenitics explains the new biology much better than Darwin’s theory. He says Epigenetics is to Darwin’s theory what Einstein’s Physics is to Newton’s Physics. He says that Science replaces with even more approximate views of the World.

Cancer

Davies has a special interest in our ways of curing cancer. He says that in the beginning about 2 billion years ago, only single cell organisms existed. Their only job was to replecate endlessly. At some point in time, multi-cellular organisms came into existence. There is a contract of sorts between the cell and the organism. Cells perform specialised functions and in exchange the organism exists. He says Cancer is a return to single cellular nature of the cell, a breaking of the contract in multi-cellular organisms.

He says current treatment of Cancer targets the uncontrolled replicability of the cells. However, cells have learnt over 2 billion years how to overcome obstacles placed in the replicability of the cells. They learn to overcome radiation and there could possibly be chemotherapy resistance.

Davies suggests the ideal way to think of treatment of cancer is to “reason” with the cell. The cell does not realise that its replication while good for the cell, is bad for the host and could eventually lead to it getting killed. Davies suggests that one has to download a patch or reboot the system in order to manage the Cancer, in a way similar to Diabetes. In the end, its a way of making the cells behave better. This hasn’t been done in practice. It’s still all theory.

Quantum Biology

Quantum Biology is a field that has come into existence in the last 10-20 years. Life exploits quantum mechanics for little quirks. Davies sits on the fence about whether there is space for quantum biology. They’re currently at a place where they could be at the tip of the iceberg or it could be just small quirks of living beings.

The issue with quantum biology is the lack of ease of doing experiments. Davies says that there is a lot of thermodynamic noise in systems at room temperature. He says that’s the reason why quantum mechanics experiment happen at very low temperature. Here the effects are clearly visible. Not so much at room temperature. Also quantum mechanics involves simple systems but life is a very complex system.

Photosynthesis as an example of Quantum Biology

Photosynthesis is the process by which plant uses sunlight to break water molecules to create energy for the plant. However, what has been noticed is that there is some molecular distance between the place where solar energy is captured and where the break of the water molecule happens. Energy to break the molecule has to be transported with minimum loss of energy. It has been found that this transmission takes place using a principle called quantum coherence. Study in this field was begun and is ongoing under Graham Fleming at UC Berkley.

Consciousness and Quantum Mechanics

It is thought that Quantum Mechanics will either explain consciousness or it will not. Thinking currently is that at the quantum level, atoms live in a universe of multiple possibilities and parallel universes. However, when one brings in the act of observation, these multiple possibilities are brought into one defined reality by consciousness. There is also another school of thought that is looking at things from outside in and asking the question whether quantum effects exist in the brain. People like Roger Penrose at Oxford University and Stuart Hameroff at the University of Arizona are working to figure out whether there are quantum goings-on in cells and more importantly in the human brain that explains consciousness. Davies says that personally he is skeptical but open-minded about the possibilities.

Davies suggests that a quantum pathway could be a possibility for explaining the link between non-living molecules to living molecules.

Extremophiles

It is believed that one of the possible origins of life on Earth is in the depths of the ocean. It is kilometers below the surface of the ocean where perhaps even sunlight would not reach it. Davies suggests that life discovered the use of quantum coherence discussed above in these depths and improved and perfected it when it reached the surface. Other possibilities include origin of life outside Earth with comets and meteorites seeding the planet.

Phylostratigraphy

Phylostratigraphy is a new field of study where it is believed that genes can be dated. There are ancient genes and some recently evolved genes. It sheds light on how life evolved on the planet.

Miller Urey experiments

Chemists have been trying to cook up life in laboratories by mixing various organic chemicals but without any luck. Stanley Miller tried to experiment using simple organisms from chemical substances. Davies thinks this is a stretch and the wrong way to do things.

How does life code?

Davies says that the real question is how does life code. Going back to the computer analogy, he thinks that life is the software which codes. It’s the way which life processes information. He believes that this is the boundary between non-life and life. But there is no answer as to how these cells learn how to code. Cells store information, process information and encodes this information and passes it on.

New ways of thinking

Davies suggests that life is so complex that we need new ways of thinking about life to break this code. His way of thinking is to think about parallels with the world of computers.

His craziest paper has been a submission to a journal Nature on the quantum origin of life. He suggests that the original code existed on an interstellar dust of grain existing at 3 degrees above absolute zero, the temperature that existed in the cosmic microwave background. He suggests that life code existed here and coded in q-bits. It made copies that got stored in organic molecules that seeded Earth and is possibly seeding other planets as we speak.

Davies suggests that such crazy ideas are necessary as we think about that jump from non-life molecules to living organisms.

Humans at their Best

Joaquin Phoenix
Image: Harald Krichel, Wikimedia

Joaquin Phoenix won the Oscar 2020 for the Actor in the Leading Role for his performance as Arthur Fleck in the Hollywood movie, JOKER! But, what I liked was this insight into the current world scenario:

I think at times we feel, or were made to feel, that we champion different causes, but for me, I see commonality. I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity.

But human beings, at our best, are so inventive and creative and ingenious, and I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.

Listen to his whole speech on the Oscars website.

Tiny Habits

Brett McKay talks to Dr B J Fogg for Episode 581 of the Art of Manliness podcast. Below are my show notes for the episode. The episode discusses Tiny Habits (Amazon Affiliates link), a book that Fogg has written.

Tiny Habits

Fogg proposes the Tiny Habits method of behavior change. He talks of habits not in terms of breaking them but in terms of untangling them. Think of behavior change the way you would untangle the mess of wires to straighten out your headphones. Changing habits is a process where you move from the easiest to the most difficult.

Fogg suggests that long lasting behavior change happens by changing really small habits as part of a routine. Imagine you want to make a tiny change. Fogg suggests identifying a routine attached to the change that you require. Inserting the habit as part of the routine and then slowly increasing the number of repetitions.

As an example, if you want to inculcate the habit of flossing your teeth, he suggests flossing just one tooth after brushing your teeth (routine). He suggests that we stay with one tooth as long as we want. He also gives us the freedom to do more when we want to. The number can go up. You can floss three teeth or just one. The over-achievement on the day you flossed three teeth acts as motivation for you to do just a little more. This turns this into a behavior change of flossing the teeth after you brush it.

The Three Elements – Motivation, Ability and Prompt

Behavior change here involves three elements – motivation, ability and prompt. Fogg defines motivation as the driving force which energizes you to certain behavior. He suggests that there is a compensatory relationship between motivation and ability. Ability here stands for you knowing how to do a certain task. He says that when it is harder to do something, the motivation needed is more. When it is easier to do something, you don’t need too much motivation. He recognized this compensatory relationship over an eight year period of study! He warns us that we over-estimate our future motivation to do certain things. Hence he warns us from depending on motivation as a way to change habits.

He also warns us from thinking of our aims in abstract terms. Losing weight, reducing stress etc are outcomes. He suggests that tweaking systems and processes will lead to these desired outputs. He believes that the habits should involve less time, less effort and little cost to implement to be successful.

Here, he brings the concept of prompts. He thinks that there are three types of prompts – personal prompt, context prompt and action prompt. He says that personal prompt involves you or someone else reminding you that you need to do a habit. Context prompt is a notification that alerts you to do a habit. An action prompt involves using a routine as a prompt. In our example above, brushing your teeth is a prompt for flossing them. He says personal and context prompts are not effective. He thinks that action prompts are the most effective way to initiate long lasting habit change.

In My Opinion…

Listening to this podcast, this seemed like a more scientific version of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits. It also seemed similar to James Clear’s Atomic Habits but with different terminology. Saurabh also spoke in his blog about changing habits for the new year and hence I thought this might be worth sharing. I would personally, rather follow James Clear method.

I loved what he says about celebration, though. This is his value addition to the habit change journey, in my opinion. He suggests that celebrating these small habit changes with a celebration make you feel successful. He says that these emotions get attached to the habits and re-wires your brain that converts these habits into part of your life. He suggests teaching children to celebrate after their every small habit change.

The Phone in our Pockets

My wife has accused me of being addicted to the mobile phone. She, therefore, ensures that our daughter watches YouTube videos via Chromecast on the television. She is determined to make sure she doesn’t get hooked to mobile phones early on in life. It’s inevitable I say, but she’s fighting to keep this menace away from her daughter as long as she can.

Photo by Magnus Mueller on Pexels.com

My search to quit this addiction, online has led me to various resources. There was writing by Seth Godin, Cal Newport, Brett McKay and Ryan Holiday that contributed to ideas. There is also a r/nosurf sub-Reddit that addresses this issue.

I tried deleting the applications from my phone – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I didn’t stay off these for long, ending up installing them again almost instantaneously.

Before, I share my reading about this topic, let me share my current status. I have switched off all notifications except for phone and SMS. I have removed Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram from my phone. I access them only on my laptop at home. I was able to hold this for about a week now.

I was listening to Peter Attia’s podcast, The Drive with Ryan Holiday today. Holiday, answering a question on how the connected life has affected our life, says that we reached a right about place in 2010 and then went overboard. He says that there was a time when we used social media just enough and then went over. Attia likens it to a tuning issue that went to the max setting after passing the optimum level. The max setting makes sense for some people but not for all the people in the world.

Further along the podcast, he talks about he keeps his smart phone in the other room and does not pick it up until almost after lunch. It makes for productive mornings and he lets people know that phone, SMS and email are the best way to reach him. Just earlier, he has read a comprehensive blog post about spending less time on the phone. Following one of the suggestions there, I am planning to move both of our smart phones out of our bedroom tonight.

Seth Godin also wrote a blog post today about that thing in your pocket that has an infinite options that are much better than what you’re doing right now. The idea is to prioritize what you have to do right now.

I have written earlier on the blog here about Cal Newport’s work on how social media has been designed to be addictive here. Brett McKay had called to build a Social Internet instead of being addicted to Social Media. Om Malik called for a decade of self-control. So, I’ve started on my own little journey. What about you?

Caring for Yourselves

Perhaps the greatest delusion of my life has been the belief that the world in which I was a child may have been the dark ages, but the world in which I have grown up to be an adult has to be far more enlightened and equitable than before.

Social norms and attitudes that perpetuate injustice have remained tenacious. The news remains the same. Questions that had remained unanswered when I was a child still demand answers. If I do not want my daughters to internalize that violence is the inevitable fate of women in our society, I have to find a new language to speak to them.

‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,’ Audre Lorde wrote in her book of essays, A Burst Of Light. The first time I had read this sentence, it cut through my cultural conditioning like a sheath of light. It demolished the notion that putting everyone else’s needs before one’s own is a virtue to be extolled.

Natasha Badhwar, Children must triumph over their parents, Immortal for a Moment (2018,Amazon Affiliate Link)