Thermodynamics of Life

Marc Henry, Laboratoire de Chimie Moléculaire de l’Etat Solide, Université de Strasbourg

Biology is currently plagued by several fossil concepts that may be responsible for the current stagnation in medicine. Through a careful screening of the origins of thermodynamics, such fossils concepts have been identified: assumption that heat is a form of energy, assimilation of entropy to disorder, assimilation of death to states of maximum entropy, assimilation of ATP to the energy currency of living cells, non-recognition of entropy as a state function of the whole universe, belief that free energies are another kind of energy, self-referencing in the definition of life, ignorance of basic principles of quantum physics and more particularly of the importance of intrinsic spin, confusion between three different forms of reversibility, non-recognition that irreversibility is at the heart of living systems. After stowing of these concepts in the cabinet of useless and nasty notions, a fresh new look is proposed showing how life is deep-rooted trough the entropy concept in quantum physics on the one hand and in cosmology on the other hand. This suggests that life is not an emergent property of matter, but rather that it has always been a fundamental property of a universe filled with particles and fields. It is further proposed to dismiss the first (energy = heat + work) and third laws (entropy decreases to zero at zero Kelvin) of thermodynamics, retaining only the clear Boltzmann’s definition of entropy in terms of multiplicity of microstates Ω, S = kB×Ln Ω, and the second law in its most general form applicable to any kind of macrostates: ∆Suniv ≥ 0. On this ground, clear definitions are proposed for life/death, healthiness/illness and for thermodynamic coupling. The whole unfolding of life in the universe: Big Bang → Light → Hydrogen → Stars → Atoms → Water → Planets → Metabolism → Lipids → RNA’s → Viruses → Ribosome → Proteins → Bacteria → Eukaryote → Sex → Plants → Animals → Humans → Computers → Internet, may then be interpreted as a simple consequence of a single principle: ∆Suniv ≥ 0. We thus strongly urge biologists and physicians to change and adapt their ideas and vocabulary to the proposed reformulation for a better understanding of what is life and as a consequence for better health for living beings.

Some time ago, it has been advocated that scientific knowledge has generated during its rapid expansion a certain number of conceptual fossils.Among the identified fossils we have: Newton’s three laws, actions at distance in physics, existence of several forms of energy, space ‘full of nothing’ but having properties, hysteresis curves in ferromagnetism and entropy as a measure of disorder. It is worth noting that such fossils exist because they are vestiges of ways of thinking that are no more adapted to modern scientific knowledge. The trouble is that fossils are still well alive in the world of scientific teaching and that they are the first creatures met by young students learning mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, chemistry and biology. Being sprinkled by the dust accumulated over eons, fossils are still haunting nostalgic scientific minds writing publications or books.

The field that is the most plagued with fossil thinking is obviously biology and by extension medicine. Conversely, the field that is the less contaminated by fossils is physics owing to the occurrence of two great revolutions: general relativity and quantum mechanics. Fossils also spontaneously contaminate thermodynamics and chemistry, but as soon as such scientists become acquainted with quantum physics, the contamination disappears quickly. The trouble is that biologists and physicians are hardly trained in quantum physics and have thus a minimal chance of stowing their fossils in the cabinet of useless concepts. This is very unfortunate, as biology and medi-cine have to deal with the life phenomenon, a hassle not encountered in chemistry or physics. However, it appears that thermodynamics is a way of thinking that is shared by physics and chemistry on the one hand and by biology and medicine on the other hand. So, there is good chance that by focusing on thermodynamics, biologists and physicians may be able to make their revolution to cast a firm and non-fossil bridge over the chasm separating inert from living matter.

In the following, we will address the problem starting from first principles with the aim of hav-ing a clear picture on how life has appeared on earth without any violation of the second law. It is our feeling that some conceptual fossils that ought to be exorcized currently hinder useful progresses in biology and medicine. By stowing these fossils at their right place, one may hope initiating the same kind of revolution that has affected chemistry and physics at the dawn of the twentieth century. The basic aim here is not introducing totally new yet unknown concepts, but rather reinterpreting ancient ones at the light of quantum theory and at the scale of the whole universe. In the new proposed paradigm, life should no more be perceived as a highly improbable event, but rather as an inexorable consequence of universe’s birth some 14 billion years ago.


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University of Florence

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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy

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