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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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III. Ecosmos: A Revolutionary Organic Habitable UniVerse

E. A Thermodynamics of Life

Branscomb, Elbert, et al. Escapement Mechanisms and the Conversion of Disequilibria: The Engines of Creation. Physics Reports. Vol. 677, 2017. Senior scientists Branscomb, Tommaso Biancalani, and Nigel Goldenfeld, University of Illinois, and Michael Russell, JPL, each also with NASA Astrobiology Institute, advance theoretical understandings of the dynamic forces and agencies which are found to impel and form malleable matter into increasingly animate stages. Although in abstract terms, in translation what is being credibly quantified by our human observance is an innately organic milieu which evolves and develops by its own vital propensities.

Virtually every interesting natural phenomenon, not least life itself, entails physical systems being forced to flow thermodynamically up-hill, away from equilibrium rather than towards it. All organized and dynamic elements of creation, from the galactic to the atomic, can be viewed as powered by, or being the result of, engines of disequilibria conversion; each a link in a great hierarchical cascade of conversions. We attempt here to describe and justify what we assert is the correct alternative view of how phenomena are powered in nature, focusing especially on the molecular-level conversion processes (often called “energy conserving”) that power life and that must, then acting in an entirely abiotic context, have driven it first into being. (Abstract excerpt)

It is our position that the emergence of life and the emergence of “bioenergetics” as here understood, are an indivisible continuity and that life’s fraught emergence is a story within the story just told. One, that is, in which the essential enabling events in the transition from inanimate to animate organizations of matter involved the abiotic conversion of geophysically and geochemically-supplied disequilibria into the prerequisite founding disequilibria of life. There were necessarily particular conversions; specific as to the driver and driven process pairs being inter-converted, and specific as to the chemical, mineralogical, and physical properties of the environment in which the conversions were taking place. (41-42)

Buchanan, Mark. Dissipate to Replicate. Nature Physics. February, 2015. An introduction to a section on cross-fertilizations of non-equilibrium thermodynamics with living system theory, such as reproductive behavior. Typical papers are Diverse Phenomena, Common Themes by Christopher Jarzynski, Quantum Many-Body Systems Out of Equilibrium by Jens Eisert, et al, and Thermodynamics of Information by Juan Parrondo. The mid 2010s reintegration of life and cosmos proceeds apace as we learn how these dual aspects of ground and genesis are ever more akin to each other.

Buiatti, Marcello, et al. The Living State of Matter. Gell-Mann, Murray and Constantino Tsallis, eds. Nonextensive Entropy – Interdisciplinary Applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. The next quote is an example of our conceptual dilemma over what kind of universe we are in. Although about a new thermodynamics for self-organized viability, this chapter and the whole book labors within the old model where life and its evolution remains an “anomalous” exception in an otherwise moribund cosmos.

The living state of matter, while obviously obeying physical and chemical laws, does exhibit some peculiar features which taken altogether, distinguish it from the rest of the natural world. ….these include, among others, hierarchical organization, individuality, invention, and homeostasis. (221)

Carlisle, A., et al. Out of Equilibrium Thermodynamics of Quantum Harmonic Chains. arXiv:1403.0629. Akin to Mascarehhas, et al, below, scientists from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Brazil, and Singapore again affirm and unite nature’s nonequilibrium (suggest a better translation) energies within a quantum realm now known to be suffused with complex system qualities.

The thermodynamic implications for the out-of-equilibrium dynamics of quantum systems are to date largely unexplored, especially for quantum many-body systems. In this paper we investigate the paradigmatic case of an array of nearest-neighbor coupled quantum harmonic oscillators interacting with a thermal bath and subjected to a quench of the inter-oscillator coupling strength. We study the work done on the system and its irreversible counterpart, and characterize analytically the fluctuation relations of the ensuing out-of-equilibrium dynamics. Finally, we showcase an interesting functional link between the dissipated work produced across a two-element chain and their degree of general quantum correlations. Our results suggest that, for the specific model at hand, the non-classical features of a harmonic system can influence significantly its thermodynamics. (Abstract)

Carroll, Sean M. From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. New York: Dutton, 2010. A CalTech physicist traces the flight of this cosmological arrow from its more ordered, low entropy, big bang start to an inexorable and irreversible dissolution, lately sped by an increasingly expanding universe. While an accessible review, one cannot avoid the feeling it is a “thermodynamics of death.” The last pages obliquely muse that Steven Weinberg’s 1977 “pointless universe” epitaph is now confirmed. I had occasion to hear Carroll speak at close by Smith College and from his slide show sensed that just as evolutionary theory is impeded by a Darwinian fundamentalism, physics seems caught in a similar Ludwig Boltzman (1844 – 1906) thrall, unable to move beyond his mechanistic second law. And at this premier woman’s college, should it give one pause that the (typical) ratio of men to women in the book’s index is 150 to zero. But another serious omission is no mention of the 20th century open system, non-equilibrium thermodynamics of Ilya Prigogine and many colleagues, aka a generative “fourth law,” that this section well documents.

Cartwright, Jon. Roll Over, Boltzman. Physics World. May, 2014. A popular introduction to the nonextensive thermodynamic theories of the Greek-Brazilian physicist Constantino Tsallis. Originally proposed in the late 1980s, pursued through the 2000s, with endorsements by Murray Gell-Mann (search) and others, they are being confirmed across a wide spectrum of natural, social, and medical complex systems. To gloss, while the Ludwig Boltzman (1844-1906) and Josiah Gibbs (1839-1903) second law account applies to linear, equilibrium phenomena, much of extant reality is in an open, dynamically nonlinear, far-from-equilibrium state not fixed by initial conditions. Tsallis’ version is seen to continue and expand its 1960-1970s theoretical origins by Ilya Prigogine and colleagues, as cited in arXiv:1203.5582. This report is a good survey of both older and newer takes whence “nonextensive entropy” implies a more generalized applicability. A “Tsallis” search on the ePrint site now gets over a thousand hits, e.g. Rise of Dimensionality in Complex Networks: Connection with NonExtensive Statistics (arXiv:1509.07141) or Entropic Cosmology Through Non-Gaussian Statistics (arXiv:1509.05059). Tsallis’ 2009 book Introduction to Nonextensive Statistical Mechanics (search) is a comprehensive technical survey.

Chaisson, Eric. Complexity: An Energetics Agenda. Complexity. 9/3, 2004. Astrophysicist Chaisson updates his conception of how the cosmos becomes more intricate due to an increasingly efficient use of energy by thermodynamically open systems from stars to societies. Although time’s arrow is not seen to point directly to human beings, this vista does suggest an independent generative agency behind it all.

Particularly intriguing is the rise of complexity over the course of time, indeed dramatically so within the past half-billion years since the end of the pre-Cambrian on Earth. Resembling a kind of new-Platonism, perhaps some underlying principle, a unifying law, or an ongoing process does create, order, and maintain all structures in the Universe, enabling us to study everything on uniform, common ground… (14)

Chaisson, Eric. Cosmic Evolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. In this significant work, an astrophysicist presents a “millennial synthesis” to explain a developing universe through its particle, galactic, stellar, planetary, chemical, biological, and cultural stages. By means of a nonequilibrium energy flux, an expanding cosmos spawns the emergence of increasingly complex structures and entities. As the universe becomes humanly conscious, a radical new era commences as an intentional intelligence, if it can survive, may take up and further this cosmic development.

We now perceive the dawn of a whole new reign of cosmic development - an era of opportunity for advanced life forms to begin truly to unlock secrets of the Universe, to fathom our role in the cosmos, indeed to decipher who we are and whence we came. (147)

Chaisson, Eric. Energy Rate Density as a Complexity Metric and Evolutionary Driver. Complexity. 16/3, 2010. The Tufts University astrophysicist writes a cogent technical update on his career project, well expressed in several books (search), to track the flight of the thermodynamic arrow by its parameter of how efficiently cosmic evolution from matter to mind can access and avail energy. The result of such utilizations is a procession of relative structure and vitality from galaxies to civilizations. An extensive companion article “Energy Rate Density II” was posted online for this journal in March 2011. For a 2015 update synopsis see Energy Flows in Low-Entropy Complex Systems in Entropy (17/8007).

The proposition that complexity generally increases with evolution seems indisputable. Both developmental and generational changes often display a rise in the number and diversity of properties describing a wide spectrum of ordered systems, whether physical, biological, or cultural. This article explores a quantitative metric that can help to explain the emergence and evolution of galaxies, stars, planets, and life throughout the history of the Universe. Energy rate density is a single, measurable, and unambiguous quantity uniformly characterizing Nature's many varied complex systems, potentially dictating their natural selection on vast spatial and temporal scales. (Abstract, 27)

Chaisson, Eric. Non-equilibrium Thermodynamics in an Energy-Rich Universe. Kleidon, Alex and Ralph Lorenz, eds. Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics and the Production of Entropy. Berlin: Springer, 2005. A recent summary of Chaisson’s thought in this regard.

And it is non-equilibrium thermodynamics of open, complex systems that best characterizes resources flowing in and wastes flowing out, all the while system entropy actually decreases locally while obeying thermodynamics’ cherished law that demands environmental entropy increase globally. (28)

Conte, Tom, et al. Thermodynamic Computing. arXiv:1911.01968. This is a report from an NSF supported CCC (Computing Community Consortium) workshop held January 3-5, 2019 at the Prince Wakiki Hotel, Honolulu. Some 40 expert invitees such as Jim Crutchfield, Lidia del Rio, Massimiliano Esposito, Ilya Nemenman, Gavin Crooks, Seth Lloyd, and David Wolpert came together to scope out the necessary transit from earlier macro stages (see Abstract) into deeper energetic, complex, intrinsically self-organizing domains. Its opening phase revisited contacts between physics, information, and thermodynamics over 200 years in a table which runs from Carnot and Babbage through Gibbs, Boltzmann, Turing, Shannon, Prigogine, onto to Hopfield, Landauer, and Hinton. Current interfaces are then noted between past and future via a passage from classical to thermal to quantum methods. In sum, the endeavor continues to trace a path to better mimic natural cosmic, biological, and neural processes.

The hardware and software basics laid in the 20th Century have transformed the world, but the current paradigm faces limits from several perspectives. In terms of hardware, devices have become so small that the effects of thermodynamic fluctuations take over, which are unavoidable at the nanometer scale. In terms of software, our ability to imagine and program implementations are challenged in several domains. These difficulties - device scaling, software complexity, adaptability, energy consumption, and fabrication economics – have run their course. We propose that progress in computing can continue under a united, physically grounded, computational paradigm centered on thermodynamics. We propose a research agenda that accordingly involves complex, non-equilibrium, self-organizing systems in a holistic way that will harness nature's innate computational capacity. (Abstract excerpts)

Coveney, Peter and Roger Highfield. The Arrow of Time. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991. An accessible explanation of how a far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics drives a universal evolution which develops in a fractal-like manner toward intelligent life.

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