Thermodynamic Definition of Life

The quanta of meaning can be found in a rigorous, thermodynamic definition of life. In overview, living organisms communicate with themselves and each other, over time, using the quanta of meaning, as they execute their life processes. 

According to a thermodynamic definition of life, living organisms create an internal area of order. The organism converts the area of order into work-energy. The work-energy is used to re-create the area of order. External energy is required. While the organism maintains or increases the order within itself, the organism also increases the disorder around it; the second law of thermodynamics is obeyed. These steps are found in Shannon’s channel coding theorem. 

Darwin outlined a definition of life in, “On the Origin of Species”. Biophysicists, such as Professor Jeremy England at MIT and Dr. Karo Michaelian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, added to this definition statistical analysis of “dissipation-driven adaptation”, developing what is widely regarded as a thermodynamic definition of life.

Referring to Diagram 1, starting for no particular reason on the bottom (life is a cycle, without a clear beginning or end), Media-2 containing Stored Energy, breaks down, releasing energy and, potentially, media, at Rate #2. In terms of Shannon, this is conversion of an information source, Media-2, into a signal, by a transmitter.  This release of energy (and, potentially, media) has a structure. Energy and media from Media-2 is released into free energy and media in the environment, including into Media-1 & Free Energy. In terms of Shannon, free energy and media in the environment is the channel. Potentially in response to release of energy and media at Rate #2, at least some of Media-1 & Free Energy converts into or is stored as Media-2 & Stored Energy, at Rate #1. In terms of Shannon, this is conversion of the signal back into the information source at the receiver. The transmitter and receiver is the living organism. The channel is the environment around the living organism. Subsequent to forming Media-2 & Stored Energy at Rate #1, the energy stored in Media-2 is released at Rate #2, continuing the cycle. 

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Release of the energy stored in Media-2 is destructive of Media-2. Storage of Free Energy and Media-1 as Media-2 and release of energy and media from Media-2 is less than 100% efficient and is also subject to noise. Waste heat and waste media is produced during both steps of the process. A continuous flow of free energy and media from the environment is required to drive the cycle. If the living organism survives, this process repeats over time.

Overall, there is a net increase in entropy and the living organism accelerates the flow of energy through the media. Rate-1 and Rate-2 determine a living organism’s sense or measurement of time. In terms of human memory, see here, discussing memory reconsolidation. If life is endemic in the Universe, it would effect our measurement of the temperature of the Universe.

Known media include carbon-based nucleic acids suspended in liquid water. Nucleic acids have been identified on comets and other planets in our solar system. Spectral absorption by nucleic acids has been measured in interstellar dust clouds. 

In terms of the quanta of meaning, the order quantum is the order we create within ourselves. The energy or change quantum is the energy we obtain from our internal order and which we use to perform work, typically or at least sometimes, with the objective of re-creating the order within ourselves.

Diagram 3 is a diagram of plural communication, among more than one organism, in a mutualistic relationship. Diagram 4 is a diagram of plural communication, among more than one organism, in a parasitic relationship. Diagrams 3 and 4 are examples of plural communication; there are more ways that plural communication can occur.

In the example of a mutualistic relationship illustrated in Diagram 3, Organism A and B may be able to reproduce independently from one another, using the alternative paths. However, if present together, Organism A may convert Media-3 and Free energy to store Media-4 more efficiently than it can store Media-2. Similarly, Organism B may convert Media-1 and Free energy into Media-2 more efficiently than it can store Media-4. Organism A and B may reproduce with the same or faster rate, together, than they do apart. Reproduction at a slower rate is also possible, but will be selected against, unless it is associated with is an environmental advantage.

The line between Organisms A and B may be not be fixed. They may merge, to become one organism. How to distinguish the line between Organisms is discussed in relation to Kleiber’s law

The line between computer and human life is blurry at the start, but may become distinct over time. 

In the example of a parasitic relationship in Diagram 4, energy stored at Rate #2 by Organism A into an area of order in Media-2 is used by parasitic Organism B. Media-2 may not move into Organism B; Organism B may move into Organism A to access Media-2. Organism A may be impaired following parasitization by Organism B. When Media-3 is formed by Organism B, Organism A may release Media-3, such as during the death of Organism A. Media-3 may enter another organism, release energy at Rate #4, wherein the release of energy at Rate #4 in the next organism converts Media-2 and free energy in the next organism back into Media-3, repeating the parasite’s life process.

From a human perspective, we perform work to create order over time, out of free energy and media. We build houses, we make food, we read, learn, teach ourselves math, create social order; on a genetic level, we eat, reproduce (some) of our cells, creating an area of order, and expel waste. We convert the created area of order into work. If we are successful and if media and free energy are available, the work we perform re-creates the area of order.

Example: You clean a kitchen. A clean kitchen is more highly ordered than a messy kitchen. You perform work in the clean kitchen to make food from raw food material (media and free energy, in the definition, above). In this process, the clean kitchen becomes disordered, it becomes a dirty kitchen, and the work it allows you to perform imposes order on the raw food material and converts the raw food material into prepared food. You require energy to clean the kitchen and to take the garbage out. To get this energy, you eat the prepared food and obtain from it energy and raw materials for your body—you convert the food into order within your body. The order stores energy. You convert some of the order within your body into work to clean the kitchen. At a later time, you also convert some of the order within your body into work that you perform in the clean kitchen to make more prepared food. You expel waste material (poop, garbage, etc.) and waste energy (heat). You consume free energy in excess of the amount stored in and recovered from the area of order. A similar cycle is performed by the farmers who grow the raw food material. We all perform this process when we create an area of order, whether as a product or a service, that we exchange with others for money or some other form of consideration.

Every living organism—whether virus, single cell organism, tree, whale, person, etc.—follows this iterative process until the organism dies.