Top positive review
Wondrous and wonderful
on 10 January 2017
What is life?
Temporary shelter in the cosmic storm.
Professor Brian Cox has told us this before and why it is so. Order, structure, the illusion of permanence is an aberration in the universe, an anomaly, a cosmic luxury, not part of the common state of things. Disorder is the norm, the universe tending toward it, as low entropy-ordered structures are harder to maintain, their decay and high-entropy dispersal more likely. Things fall apart, in other words. Given enough time, everything disintegrates, even the universe itself. No use crying and railing against the dying of the light.
Especially now while the light still shines, including from our most precious, energy-giving source — the sun. Life is hardy and carries on, maintaining itself by cheating death, so to speak, dispersing more energy than it takes in thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, overheating thus prevented. Hence the reference to shelter above. The universe accommodates life, or might even be said to promote it. Life may even be an inevitable consequence of the make-up of the universe, its atoms and elements combining naturally to make ordered structures out of the general disorder of things. If so, life is a foothold, a way of hanging on to keep disorder at bay, a temporary refuge in the face of disintegration. Life stakes and holds its ground while it can, survival its shelter in the storm. Individuals live and eventually die. But life itself is tenacious, DNA its long-term solution to destruction. Four billion years of its continuous presence on our planet is a mark of its determination to carry on.
This wonderful series shows how this is possible. It clearly lays out the biochemical basis of life and how it operates. It also ventures to describe how life arises, including how it initially might have come into being.
There are five episodes, each of them complex, detailed, interesting. If I were to make an outline of them all, this review would go on and on. It would be long and difficult to write, long and difficult to read. So neither of us would be satisfied. Instead, I’ve outlined just the first episode via three categories: places (we visit), some organisms (we encounter), subjects and concepts (discussed).
~ Episode One: What is Life? ~
Places: Britain, the Philippines, Palau, Borneo in Malaysia
Organisms: dragonflies, jellyfish, birds and mammals (including orang-utans)
Subjects, concepts: Festival of the Dead in the Philippines, energy, the laws of thermodynamics, proton waterfalls, alkaline thermal vents, mitochondria, DNA
Spirituality is evoked in the Festival of the Dead every November 1 in the Philippines. Families come together to light fires and say prayers at the graves of their ancestors. The bodies of their grandparents and others are gone but their spirits linger. They are there to be communed with. The ancestral line is life, continuous, unbroken. We have life because of our ancestors. We are what they made. All the ghosts that populate the world were never born because they had no ancestors. And so we give thanks to our people, our family, for the gift of life.
The ceremonies are solemn and joyous. The souls or spirits of the dead are present. The idea that death is final feels wrongheaded. Something of life remains, lingers. The people sense this. For them it is mystical, magical. “It feels right”, Prof. Cox says. But what they call spirit he calls energy, a natural universal force that cannot be destroyed, only transformed. The first law of thermodynamics says so and in this episode he demonstrates how it operates through proton waterfalls or gradients that constantly conserve energy.
In the Philippines he also reads to us from Erwin Schrödinger’s “What is Life?” a book published from lectures the great quantum physicist made in Dublin in 1943 (he was Austrian, fleeing the growing Nazi menace by moving to Britain in 1934). He starts the book by answering the question what life is not. It isn’t, he says, something mystical or magical, though it may feel so. There is no magic spark. Instead, life is a process, “the interaction,” Prof. Cox says, “between matter and energy described by the laws of physics and chemistry, the same laws that describe the falling of rain or the shining of stars.” It has to do with how life processes energy — energy that never runs out, that can only be changed from one form to another. “The story of the evolution of the universe,” he says, “is just the story of the transformation of energy from one form to another. All living things can [therefore] be explained by the laws of physics.”
“The first living things may have started out as part of the rock that created them, simple organisms that exploited energy from the naturally occurring proton gradients in deep-sea thermal vents,” Prof. Cox says. “And we still think this because living things still get their energy using proton gradients today.”
So that is the spark, if we are looking for one.
“Deep within ourselves the chemistry the first life exploited in the vents is wrapped up in structures called mitochondria, microscopic batteries that power the processes of life…And the spark of life is proton gradients [which over] four billion years has grown into a flame. A few simple organisms clustered around a hydrothermal vent have evolved to produce all the magnificent diversity that covers the earth today.”
In the forests of Borneo in Malaysia we meet one of our closest living relatives, the orang-utan, distant cousins who share roughly 97% of their DNA with us. They behave as we do too, spending at least eight years carefully teaching their children how to survive in their environment. Prof. Cox uses the orang-utan to describe the power, precision and reliability of the carbon-backed molecule that carries out instructions for building life from one generation to the next — DNA. This was Darwin’s missing intellectual link. He knew how evolution worked — ingeniously through natural selection. But he wasn’t able to understand how the information that powered natural selection was passed on. He would have delighted in the discovery of genetics as the foundation of life’s tenacious success, parents passing on to their offspring the most adaptable traits for survival.
Prof. Cox closes this episode by saying:
“The question ‘What is Life?’ is surely one of the grandest of questions. And we’ve learned that life isn’t really a thing at all. It’s a collection of chemical processes that can harness a flow of energy to create local islands of order by borrowing order from the wider universe, then transmitting it from generation to generation through the elegant chemistry of DNA. And the origins of that chemistry can be traced back four billion years, most likely to vents in a primordial ocean. And, most wonderfully of all, the echoes of that history stretching back a third of the age of the universe can be seen in every cell of every living thing on Earth. And that leads to what I think is the most exciting idea of all, because far from being some chance event ignited by a mystical spark, the emergence of life on Earth might have been an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics. And if that’s true, then a living cosmos might be the only way our cosmos can be.”
The other four episodes in the series are titled: “Expanding Universe,” “Endless Forms Most Beautiful,” “Size Matters” and “Home”.
The level of detailed information in the series is astounding. I have watched it three times and have incrementally learned more with each new viewing. A degree in physics or chemistry is not required to understand the processes Prof. Cox describes, but you do need to pay close attention and preferably watch with the subtitles activated. His voice is clear enough, and I happen to like his gentle Lancashire lilt, but the concepts may sometimes feel daunting and they always bear thinking about or he wouldn’t think to mention them. This may be popular science, but it’s no Science for Dummies. Prof. Cox welcomes you aboard because he thinks you are intelligent and educated. He looks straight into the lens at you, his line of sight level with your own. I like this immensely about him. His camaraderie, his boyishness, his enthusiasm and passion. He’s the best of teachers in that he loves his material, trusts its truths, wants to communicate, hopes you will understand too. In this sense, in loving knowledge, he’s a philosopher too.
The ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus once wrote:
“Only the educated are free.”
I thought about this frequently while watching the series. Wondrous and wonderful indeed — the series, ideas, professor, life, ride.