Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Enigma of Life (Part 1 of 2) — What is life? is a miracle of astronomical mathematical improbability.

The transitional beauty of life from land to sea as juxtaposed against the epitome of a seashore owes more to a natural phenomena than a mythological inexplicability. — Image Credit: Kert Gartner, 2011

In response to my previous post, someone had asked me in person: "If god was invented by humans to satisfy the need to worship something, then what is the meaning of life?" The very question is based on the premise that one needs a god to give life meaning (or that having a god would make life more meaningful). It's like saying that tooth fairies make losing a tooth more meaningful or that storks make childbirth more miraculous. We know what the meaning of life is. Just like losing a tooth and the miracle of childbirth, the meaning lies in our biology.


What life really is

Life in the simplest terms is automation. Life as we know it is a highly complex, self sufficient, chemical compound. You've heard the term "organic compounds" all the time. However, an organic compound isn't life until that compound becomes automated. To grossly oversimplify this at the risk of error, imagine that you have a set of Lego™ blocks assembled to look like a machine. The machine by itself is useless. Add a battery and a motor and the machine is alive.

However, the battery will eventually run out, and the machine will die. Does this mean that the machine did not live? Hardly. If you are starved of food and water for 60 days, you too will run out of power and die — just like the Lego™ machine. So technically, all life is nothing more than organic compounds that have an electrical charge that allows some form of automation.

This applies to all life forms. Everything that you know that lives is a compendium of chemical compounds automated by an electrical current. This means that you can technically create life in your laboratory by building a robot that would charge itself whenever its power runs low. Odds are, that a robot is likely to outlive you by decades as its automation is less corruptible.

I know what you're thinking. A robot doesn't live like a human does. Well to that, I would say that also excludes plants and most animals. They don't live like humans either. So does that mean that they are not alive? Hardly. It just means that they are not sentient. Sentience is self awareness. It can be replicated in a computer lab with a fairly powerful enough machine.

So that's not really an issue either.

Either way, the standard definition of life favors biological forms. That's largely because we've never seen a naturally occurring life form that wasn't based on complex chemical compounds like biological life tends to be. So we are inclined to think that life only refers to biological forms (meaning they are based on cells) that metabolize air, food, water and excrete waste, that grow, reproduce, respond to the environment, adapt, and express some physical animation.

A robot doesn't have cells, but it does have circuits. It doesn't metabolize air, food and water, but it does consume electricity for energy. A robot doesn't really grow or evolve, but it can be designed to learn. It doesn't reproduce, but it can be designed to build other robots that are better than it is. Robots can respond to their environment almost as well as humans can. They can be designed to compete for resources while animation was the first task they mastered.

So is it still fair to say that an artificially intelligent machine isn't alive? It's only fair to say that such a machine isn't intellectually human, but that is fast becoming a non sequitur. Right now, artificially intelligent computers can outdo humans in science, mathematics, logic and natural language. In a few decades, A.I. will become just as human as any well rounded young adult.

In a few years after that, due to Moore's law, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) will become equally as intellectual as humans are today. You will not be able to reasonably differentiate between a humanoid machine and a human. This developmental gap will be very brief. In the following year, A.I. will be the last leap of human evolution. We may even find ourselves in a position where we have to choose whether to port our consciousness to their non perishable bodies.

In the near future, we will build machines that will be indistinguishable from their human
doppelgangers. — Pictured: A scene from "Artificial Intelligence" (2001). Source: IWDRM

Either that, or the ruling world government makes it law to legally turn off the genetic marker that causes aging. Even if that doesn't happen, stem cell research will allow us to grow new organs to replace old ones, effectively extending our life span indefinitely. Humans will attain a god like status where we literally live forever. Whether we use biological or mechanical bodies at this point is completely irrelevant. In fact, the choice may just be up to our robot overlords.

So what is life? Automation. That's all it is really. While we have figured out how to replicate what happens in nature using the blue prints that already exist in nature, we haven't quite figured out the magic of how to ignite the electrical spark that makes it move, breathe and be from raw organic compounds. The answer to that likely lies in the realm of quantum physics.

...not religion.

However that is completely irrelevant. We have already established that the human body is nothing more than a flesh and blood machine — no less a machine than one made of silicon and plastic. Thus, like any machine, it has intricate parts that can go bad, that can be fixed, upgraded, replaced or automated or simulated and it requires power for automation to occur.

When humans first designed computers, we were merely trying to make a more efficient version of ourselves. The mere fact that artificial intelligence exists is a testament to the fact that we are building a silicon and plastic machine that will one day be just as human as we are. The fidelity with which these machines will simulate our humanity will be so precise that even the religious will question themselves about what an immortal soul is supposed to be.

Either way, the mere fact that we can replicate the generation of life in a lab means that it probably wasn't God that made it in the first place. It was likely nothing more than a natural phenomenon. The automation of chemical compounds that produce life is quite a remarkably complex procedure, no doubt — but certainly not inexplicable. We understand it enough to predict where it will occur. Even so, the fact that life is an incredible miracle means that the odds of finding intelligent extra terrestrial life are highly improbable — but not quite impossible.

Allow me to explain:

The probability of life

With beautifully deadly explosions like this one going on for thousands of years, life will hardly get a chance to materialize anywhere in the universe. (Pictured: the Cat's Eye Nebula — Hubble, NASA.)

Quite frankly, life is a miracle of astronomical mathematical improbability. To give you a rough idea of how improbable life is, think of throwing a normal coin fifty times in a row and it comes up heads, all fifty times. Think of the odds of winning 100 consecutive games of Poker by a Royal Flush. Think of the odds of winning the lottery 7 years in a row. Think of the odds of a US soldier getting a head shot every time using an M4 Carbine while at war in Afghanistan.

These odds are not impossible. They are just highly improbable.

By the same context, consider the universe. It is by all indications a black hole machine, since that's what it appears to be best at making in abundance. Pick any given corner of the visible universe and you will likely find that there is far too much incredible violence going on an epic, cosmic scale to give life a chance to exist. How could oxygen breathers thrive in such a hell?

Black holes and neutron stars are tearing super giant stars to shreds, disintegrating any near orbiting planets and their moons. Magnetars blast off massive bursts of gamma ray radiation, incinerating entire solar systems within a 10,000 light year radius. Heck, one was so massive, that the radiation reached us from over 50,000 light years away! Giant asteroids and deadly comets are pounding planets into an incendiary dust cloud, rebooting any life that could have thrived there while colliding galaxies dance a hundred thousand year long duel to the death.

There are supernovas whose explosions defy our understanding of the words "violent" and "gigantic". How do you outrun an explosion that expands to millions of miles in diameter in the same amount of time it takes light to get to us from the Sun? If a super nova goes off just outside our solar system (some 3 billion miles away), we're toast. These explosions make and break entire worlds. But even more violent are quasars, which are an entire exploding galaxy.

So the likelihood of life existing anywhere in this universe at all is about the same as running barefoot through a mine field packed with 50 megaton nuclear proximity bombs without setting one off. It's about the same odds of walking through a frenzied street level firefight between rival gangs and the entire Los Angeles Police Department without conceding a single shot. Because of the ultra violent nature of our universe, life in any form is highly improbable.

It's like walking into a metal smelting plant where one of the explosions from pouring liquid metal drips onto the factory floor and forms a perfectly shaped BMW. To borrow an analogy from Richard Dawkins, it's like a hurricane blowing through a scrap yard and assembling a perfectly functional 747. The astronomical improbability of life means that it should not exist.

By every observation, life is a nearly impossible confluence of an astronomically improbable predication of practically divine providence. That's just a really fancy way of saying that the occurrence of life is really nothing more than sheer dumb luck. That's the reason why the universe is not exactly teeming with life as is often portrayed in the works of Science Fiction.

However, we live in a universe of astronomical size. So it is only logical that such astronomical improbabilities are very much a reality. That's the only reason life exists really. It is because the universe is so ridiculously big that just about any improbability is likely such as a nebula that looks like a raspberry or a black hole surrounded by water - I couldn't make this stuff up.

The Peculiarity of life

The substance of the universe at the cosmic scale looks very similar to what it looks like at the atomic scale. Life defies this fractal relationship. (Pictured: The M74 Spiral Galaxy — © Copyright 2011, NASA.)

The universe at the cosmic level looks exactly the same at the subatomic level. Planets circle stars like electrons circle neutrons. Stars clump together in galaxies like atoms clump together in molecules. The design is intrinsically symmetrical, at least until you consider life. There is a massive amount of "stuff" in the universe. Most of it looks the same, with the exception of life.

When you examine life closely enough, you will find the same repeating patterns that are more obvious in molecules and galaxies. In mathematics, we call these repeating patterns Fractals. They are a repeating sequence of a fairly primitive geometric pattern that when expanded recursively tend to create a more complex pattern like you would see in broccoli:

The Romanesco Broccoli (pictured) is a classic example of the Fractal of life. Each cone on the broccoli is made of a spiral pattern that is also made of cones, which is also the shape of the broccoli. You will find a similar recursive spiral pattern in the pictures of everything from atoms to galaxies. — Credit: Jon Sullivan

Molecules are fractals based on a specific mathematical sequence of atomic formation. They may then continue binding together repeatedly to make even more complex objects like rocks, metals, liquids and gases. You will find some variation of these substances everywhere in the universe in abundance. But life is different. It is much more complex than solids, liquids or gas.

All the stuff in the universe is made through nuclear fission that happens inside a star. When a star explodes, all the material made in it over its life time is cast into space, thereby providing the materials to make rocks, asteroids and eventually, planets. However, sometimes when this material is cast off into space, substances more complex than rocks are eventually made.

Instead of the atoms assembling themselves recursively into a relatively homogenous object like a rock, the molecules undergo a process where they are assembled as a rather peculiar shape that isn't just any other assortment of atomic patterns. This famous shape is called Dioxyribonucleic Acid (DNA). It is an extremely rare molecule in the grand scheme of all things.

Unlike the molecules that make rocks and other inanimate objects, DNA molecules are unique in that they themselves become the building blocks of something else entirely. The process that makes a DNA molecule and the assortment of molecules in rocks are fairly similar. DNA molecules however, simply took a detour along the production line when things are just right.

The DNA molecule is a random number generator that spawns the vast myriad of variations of animated chemicals that we call "life". This includes everything from protozoa to humans, and it does so using exactly the same manufacturing process. So where the building process for a rock involves just two stages of recursive atomic fusion and molecular bonding, DNA has five:
  1. Atomic fusion inside stars make heavier elements (80% of the stuff in the universe)
  2. Heavier elements fuse to make solids, liquids and gases (about 15% of the universe)
  3. Some solids go through additional processing to make DNA.
  4. DNA generates Cells and other primitive organisms.
  5. Cells divide to make life, less than 1% of the stuff in the known universe.

Going down the list from 1 to 5, the number of substances at each stage drops dramatically because they are much more complex. For most of the stuff in the known universe, the odds of getting past #2 on the list are incredibly remote. That's why most of the stuff in the universe is homogenous. In other words, they tend to be elemental; they're made up of the same things.

Stage 1 accounts for roughly 80% of the physical stuff in the universe. Stage 2 accounts for another 15% as heavier metals and more complex inanimate compounds. Whatever is left is a random assortment of by products of all the explosive activity that made everything else in the universe. Among that random assortment, is a rather odd peculiarity that we might all call life.

The Enigma of Life (Part 2 of 2) — The Meaning of life.

E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com


  1. Unrelated to your post... Why did you switch from wordpress to blogspot?

    Related to your post...

    What direction do you think the universe ends at... up, down etc... or do you think it is all equally the same ?

  2. Re: Migration

    In short, Wordpress stifles my creative instinct. I got tired of having to hack the code to make the posts look the way I wanted them to. There are other creative decisions Wordpress also does not allow. So I came here.

    Re: Universe

    If I understand your question correctly, then all matter is energy. All energy (that we can see) is kinetic. All energy attenuates. Therefore, all matter will eventually attenuate into a cold, dark nothingness (which technically is still something, but I won't twist your brain around that just now).