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Podcast science

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.

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science

Science and Storytelling

Vasudevan Mukunth (VM) has two pieces on his blog titled The Rationalist’s Eclipse and another one titled Social Media and Science Communication that talks largely about Science Communication on the ground and on social media. When we wonder about how to communicate Science. The answer lies in the Arts. It lies in the creative ways that the current protests around the CAA/NRC have used on the ground and social media to spread the message like wild fire in posters, speeches, poetry and kolams. I want to point VM to where the answer may lie to the questions he raises in his two blog posts.

I was reading Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings newsletter dated December 26, 2019 and it brought to light some of the modern efforts and failures of Science communication in India that VM highlights in the article above. The large part of the country is still superstitious and I see the role of science communication in India as being making aware people of the applications available to the people of that which has been illuminated by modern Science. Johannes Kepler also lived in a similar milieu. He seems to be grappling with some of the issues that we face in Science communication today. This is not a definitive answer by any stretch, just a possibility.

Now, we come back to Maria Popova’s Braing Pickings dated December 26, 2019. I suggest to you to read, “How Kepler Invented Science Fiction and Defended His Mother in a Witchcraft Trial While Revolutionizing Our Understanding of the Universe” in full.

Some of the quotes from that article are what I am reproducing below:

In his first book, The Cosmographic Mystery, Kepler picked up the metaphor and stripped it of its divine dimensions, removing God as the clockmaster and instead pointing to a single force operating the heavens: “The celestial machine,” he wrote, “is not something like a divine organism, but rather something like a clockwork in which a single weight drives all the gears.” Within it, “the totality of the complex motions is guided by a single magnetic force.” It was not, as Dante wrote, “love that moves the sun and other stars” — it was gravity, as Newton would later formalize this “single magnetic force.” But it was Kepler who thus formulated for the first time the very notion of a force — something that didn’t exist for Copernicus, who, despite his groundbreaking insight that the sun moves the planets, still conceived of that motion in poetic rather than scientific terms. For him, the planets were horses whose reins the sun held; for Kepler, they were gears the sun wound by a physical force.

Maria Popova, Braing Pickings, 26/12/2019

Kepler knew what we habitually forget — that the locus of possibility expands when the unimaginable is imagined and then made real through systematic effort. Centuries later, in a 1971 conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about the future of space exploration, science fiction patron saint Ray Bradbury would capture this transmutation process perfectly: “It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality.” Like any currency of value, the human imagination is a coin with two inseparable sides. It is our faculty of fancy that fills the disquieting gaps of the unknown with the tranquilizing certitudes of myth and superstition, that points to magic and witchcraft when common sense and reason fail to unveil causality. But that selfsame faculty is also what leads us to rise above accepted facts, above the limits of the possible established by custom and convention, and reach for new summits of previously unimagined truth. Which way the coin flips depends on the degree of courage, determined by some incalculable combination of nature, culture, and character.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 26/12/2019

The scientific proof was too complex, too cumbersome, too abstract to persuade even his peers, much less the scientifically illiterate public; it wasn’t data that would dismantle their celestial parochialism, but storytelling.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 26/12/2019

The newsletter has writing which is taken from Figuring, a book Maria Popova wrote in February 2019, stretching from the work of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to Rachel Carson (1907-1964). A book that I hope will be part of my reading journey in 2020.

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science

Share: Review: ‘Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate’ (2018)

VM has been prolifically blogging the past few days. In this piece, he reviews the book about Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate and physicist, Abdus Salam. The book traces his work as he fumbles to make a mark in Pakistan’s history and is denied it because of his religious identity. I love VM’s observation on how he could have been Pakistan’s Abdul Kalam.

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science

Chai and Why: Origami and Mathematics

Chai and Why? is a public outreach effort of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Today I went to the session on “Origami and Mathematics”. This begins a series of Chai and Why? concentrated on children during the vacation season.

Today’s talk was by Vijay Arolkar and Mimansa Vahia. Before the talk, Sanjana Kapoor turned up and announced the Prithvi Theater’s Summer Workshop and the idea of having Prithvi Theater and its partners do special activities for kids during the summer. She even hung around till a few minutes into the talk.

Vijay Arolkar began the talk. He introduced his guru Prof. Natarajan who then introduced this group – Origami Mitra which met twice a month at Dadar. Few of its members were also present in the audience. Arolkar is a member of the TIFR’s Low Temperature Facility. His talk was filled with demonstrations that vowed the audience by some innovative techniques of forming basic shapes and models.

Mimansa Vahia, a PhD student in the Maths department at TIFR, took over and spoke about the axioms of origami and providing a strong theoretical basis for origami which enabled its application in mathematics. The example that stood and that got repeated throughout the day was the trisection of an angle which was made possible by origami.

The areas of application held more interest for me. Origami has formed the basis for several interesting applications like packing airbags, crumple zones in cars, camera lens, self folding sheets, folding of solar panels on a spacecraft, fitting space telescopes into compact launch vehicles etc. Origami has made available ways of packing airbags once certain parameters about its usage is known. It has been used to determine crumple zones in cars, places where the cars can fail on impact while causing minimum injury to its passengers. Its application has also enabled multiple camera lens to be replaced by a single lens having diamond shaped crystals arranged in a fashion that enables multiple reflections of the light passing through giving it the same effect that multiple optical lens do. This arrangement was arrived at using origami though the original one uses crystals. This enables camera lens miniaturisation and has been found in 2010. Self folding sheets are sheets which fold in certain ways on the passage of electric currents. The Miura fold is what has been used in the solar panels of spacecrafts.

This was followed by a hands-on paper folding experience in which we made a paper box, a fan, a speaking penguin and a toppling toy. We got to bring these home (although they didn’t let us keep the TIFR folder on which we built these models) and I even showed my brother how to make a toppling toy for himself.

A paper box made from A4 size paper. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

A fan. Credit: Pradeep Mohandas


A Talking Penguin. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas
Toppling Toy. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

This was my first experience in a hands-on workshop at Chai and Why? and I must say that it was fun. I was folding paper after a very very long time and unlike my school experience of crafts, I had a lot of fun. I hope I can attend a few meetings with Origami Mitra and re-ignite my dead crafty characteristics.

I will unfortunately miss the next two sessions of Chai and Why? called  Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star since I’ll be in Kerala.

[While looking for links, I found that the Origami article on Wikipedia has some fun links to explore and also the webpage of Robert Lang whose name continuously popped up along with a picture of him with a 5m telescope. Also many of the spacecrafts have a page where you can get instructions of how to build their paper models. HobbySpace is a good place to start in this regard.]