Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Free Energy and the Meaning of Life

Free Energy and the Meaning of Life

When we think about the “meaning of life,” we tend to conjure ideas such as love, or self-actualization, or justice, or human progress. It’s an anthropocentric view; try to convince blue-green algae that self-actualization is some sort of virtue. Let’s ask instead why “life,” as a biological concept, actually exists. That is to say: we know that entropy increases as the universe evolves. But why, on the road from the simple and low-entropy early universe to the simple and high-entropy late universe, do we pass through our present era of marvelous complexity and organization, culminating in the intricate chemical reactions we know as life?

Yesterday’s book club post referred to a somewhat-whimsical vision of Maxwell’s Demon as a paradigm for life. The Demon takes in free energy and uses it to maintain a separation between hot and cold sides of a box of gas — a sustained departure from thermal equilibrium. But what if we reversed the story? Instead of thinking that the Demon takes advantage free energy to help advance its nefarious anti-thermodynamic agenda, what if we imagine that the free energy is simply using the Demon — that is, the out-of-equilibrium configurations labeled “life” — for its own pro-thermodynamic purposes?

...there’s useful energy, and useless energy. When you burn gasoline in your car engine, the amount of energy doesn’t really change; some of it gets converted into the motion of your car, while some gets dissipated into useless forms such as noise, heat, and exhaust, increasing entropy along the way. That’s why it’s helpful to invent the concept of “free energy” to keep track of how much energy is actually available for doing useful work, like accelerating a car. Roughly speaking, the free energy is the total energy minus entropy times temperature, so free energy is used up as entropy increases.

Because the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that entropy increases, the history of the universe is the story of dissipation of free energy. Energy wants to be converted from useful forms to useless forms. But it might not happen automatically; sometimes a configuration with excess free energy can last a long time before something comes along to nudge it into a higher-entropy form.

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