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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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Organic Universe
Earth Life Emerge
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III. Ecosmos: A Revolutionary Fertile, Habitable, Solar-Bioplanet, Incubator Lifescape

D. Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics of Living Systems

Rubi, J. Miguel. The Long Arm of the Second Law. Scientific American. November, 2008. The University of Barcelona physicist allows that although the cosmic tide of entropy surely flows, complexity and consciousness may arise via open non-equilibrium systems. Which seems basically the theoretical case made by Ilya Prigogine and colleagues some thirty years ago.

Waste is unavoidable—a sad fact of life quantified by the famous second law of thermodynamics. But if the world is steadily becoming more disordered, how do you explain the self-organization that often occurs in nature? At root, the trouble is that classical thermodynamics assumes systems are in equilibrium, a placid condition seldom truly achieved in the real world. A new approach closes this loophole and finds that the second law holds far from equilibrium. But the evolution from order to disorder can be unsteady, allowing for pockets of self-organization. (63)

Sagawa, Takahiro. Thermodynamics of Information Processing in Small Systems. Berlin: Springer, 2012. Due by November, a Kyoto University professor publishes his “best University of Toyko physics thesis of 2010.” As its synopsis notes, the work is seen as a novel formulation of a “nonlinear informational thermodynamics.”

This thesis presents a general theory of nonequilibrium thermodynamics for information processing. Ever since Maxwell's demon was proposed in the nineteenth century, the relationship between thermodynamics and information has attracted much attention because it concerns the foundation of the second law of thermodynamics. From the modern point of view, Maxwell's demon is formulated as an information processing device that performs measurement and feedback at the level of thermal fluctuations. By unifying information theory, measurement theory, and the recently developed theory of nonequilibrium statistical mechanics, the author has constructed a theory of "information thermodynamics," in which information contents and thermodynamic variables are treated on an equal footing. One of the generalized equalities has recently been verified experimentally by using sub-micron colloidal particles. (Publisher)

Schneider, Eric. Gaia: Toward a Thermodynamics of Life. Schneider, Stephen, et al, eds. Scientists Debate Gaia. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. A survey of the history of thermodynamic thinking from the 19th century to its nonequilibrium ability today to articulate a fertile cosmos of open planetary systems becoming increasingly alive.

Instead of a second law portending the doom of life and the heat death of the universe, we propose an interpretation of the second law as an active participant in the emergence and evolution of dynamic dissipative systems. (50)

Schneider,, Eric and Dorion Sagan. Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Schneider, a veteran theorist of thermodynamics and ecology, and noted science writer Sagan join forces to achieve a novel synthesis of energy dynamics in life's origin, evolution and human affairs. In its broad compass, 19th century classical thermodynamics of a closed nature tending to equilibrium, codified in its second law which a cosmic heat death is lately superseded by a non- and far-from-equilibrium version. Living systems are actually open to a constant flow of energy and information which drives and sustains their complex viability and evolution. In order to give a proper appreciation we next quote from the publisher's website.

Scientists, theologians, and philosophers have all sought to answer the questions of why we are here and where we are going. Finding this natural basis of life has proved elusive, but in the eloquent and creative Into the Cool, Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan look for answers in a surprising place: the second law of thermodynamics. This second law refers to energy's inevitable tendency to change from being concentrated in one place to becoming spread out over time. In this scientific tour de force, Schneider and Sagan show how the second law is behind evolution, ecology,economics, and even life's origin.

Working from the precept that "nature abhors a gradient," Into the Cool details how complex systems emerge, enlarge, and reproduce in a world tending toward disorder. From hurricanes here to life on other worlds, from human evolution to the systems humans have created, this pervasive pull toward equilibrium governs life at its molecular base and at its peak in the elaborate structures of living complex systems. Schneider and Sagan organize their argument in a highly accessible manner, moving from descriptions of the basic physics behind energy flow to the organization of complex systems to the role of energy in life to the final section, which applies their concept of energy flow to politics, economics, and even human health.

Sestak, Jaroslav. Science of Heat and Thermophysical Studies: A Generalized Approach to Thermal Analysis. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005. An internationally recognized scientist from the Czech Republic offers extensive theory and philosophical reflections on a thermodynamically self-organizing nature.

Sheehan, Daniel. Thermosynthetic Life. Foundations of Physics. 37/12, 2007. A special issue of papers from the 2006 The Second Law of Thermodynamics: Foundations and Status symposium, which the University of San Diego physicist edits. Grouped under three themes - ideal gases, quantum aspects, and interpretations - half support the 19th century inviolable axiom while the others post 21st century challenges. Sheehan’s contribution adds to chemosynthetic and photosynthetic life a third viable category that draws on available environmental heat sources.

Skene, Keith. Life’s a Gas: A Thermodynamic Theory of Biological Evolution. Entropy. Online July, 2015. The author has a doctorate in plant developmental biology from the University of Dundee, where he taught for 13 years. He is now director of the Biological Research Institute, a British virtual centre for global sustainability (BIOSRI). Its aim is an innovative synthesis of living, ecological systems with the natural vectors of energy and entropy. These dynamics are then seen in effect from DNA and amino acids all the way to biomes and the whole Earth system. An update is In Pursuit of the Framework behind the Biosphere in Biosystems (Vol. 190, 2020). The basic incentive is to get a read and bead on an evident innate motive force which strongly seems to drive life’s evolutionary advance and planetary florescence.

This paper outlines a thermodynamic theory of biological evolution. Beginning with a brief summary of the parallel histories of the modern evolutionary synthesis and thermodynamics, we use four physical laws and processes (the first and second laws of thermodynamics, diffusion and the maximum entropy production principle) to frame the theory. Given that open systems such as ecosystems will move towards maximizing dispersal of energy, we expect biological diversity to increase towards a level representing maximum entropic production. Based on this theory, we develop a mathematical model to predict diversity over the last 500 million years. This model combines diversification, post-extinction recovery and likelihood of discovery of the fossil record. We compare the output of this model with that of the observed fossil record. The model predicts that life diffuses into available energetic space (ecospace) towards a dynamic equilibrium, driven by increasing entropy within the genetic material through diffusion into available ecospace. Finally we compare and contrast our thermodynamic theory with the MES in relation to a number of important characteristics of evolution (progress, evolutionary tempo, form versus function, biosphere architecture, competition and fitness). (Abstract)

The idea for BIOSRI came from a frustrated academic, Dr Keith Skene, who felt that the specialized, isolated and reductionist world of much academic thinking was failing to explore adequately the challenges and solution space relating to the major issues facing our world today. BIOSRI attempts to create space to think, and encourage thinkers to explore beyond their immediate neighbourhoods so as to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and collective resolution of problems, to communicate cutting edge concepts from across the intellectual and experiential world, and to contribute to policy-making bodies at local, national and international levels. (Web page)

Smith, Eric. Thermodynamics of Natural Selection. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 252/2, 2008. This is the title of three linked papers with these subtitles: Energy Flow and the Limits on Organization; Chemical Carnot Cycles; and Landauer’s Principle in Computation and Chemistry. The abstract below from the first paper gives an overview. See also Smith’s popular article “Before Darwin” in The Scientist cited in the An Organic Universe section.

This is the first of three papers analyzing the representation of information in the biosphere, and the energetic constraints limiting the imposition or maintenance of that information. Biological information is inherently a chemical property, but is equally an aspect of control flow and a result of processes equivalent to computation. The current paper develops the constraints on a theory of biological information capable of incorporating these three characterizations and their quantitative consequences. The paper illustrates the need for a theory linking energy and information by considering the problem of existence and resilience of the biosphere, and presents empirical evidence from growth and development at the organismal level suggesting that the theory developed will capture relevant constraints on real systems. The main result of the paper is that the limits on the minimal energetic cost of information flow will be tractable and universal whereas the assembly of more literal process models into a system-level description often is not. The second paper in the series then goes on to construct reversible models of energy and information flow in chemistry which achieve the idealized limits, and the third paper relates these to fundamental operations of computation. (185)

spier, Fred. Complexity in Big History. Cliodynamics: Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History. 2/1, 2011. The University of Amsterdam historian expands on the Eric Chaisson’s vectorial thermodynamics to interpret a processional passage from cosmos to civilization by way of increasingly effective energy usage. See also Spier’s opus Big History and the Future of Humanity, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Big history can also be summarized as providing an overview of the rise and demise of complexity in all its forms and manifestations ever since the beginning of the universe. If we want to pursue this approach to big history, we need a theoretical framework that facilitates us to do so. In this article I propose such a scheme based on energy flows through matter that are needed for complexity to emerge, and often also to continue to exist, within certain favorable boundaries. (Abstract, 146)

spinney, Richard, et al. Thermodynamics and the Dynamics of Information in Distributed Computation. arXiv:1712.09715. Spinney, Joseph Lizier and Mikhail Prokopenko, University of Sydney, Complex Systems Research Group, (search each), contribute to an imminent synthesis by tracing theoretical affinities between stochastic energies, informational aspects, and how nature seems to be engaged in a self-generating computation. See also above Nonequilibrium Entropic Bounds for Darwinian Replicators by Pinero and Sole for a companion take.

Information dynamics is an emerging description of information processing in complex systems. In this paper we make a formal analogy between information dynamics and stochastic thermodynamics. As stochastic dynamics increasingly concerns itself with the processing of information we suggest such an analogy is instructive in providing hitherto unexplored insights into the implicit information processing that occurs in physical systems. Information dynamics describes systems in terms of intrinsic computation, identifying computational primitives of information storage and transfer. This opens up the possibility of describing all physical systems in terms of computation. (Abstract excerpts)

Spinney, Richard, et al. Transfer Entropy in Physical Systems and the Arrow of Time. Physical Review E. 94/022135, 2016. Into the 2010s, theoretical studies of the temporal course of cosmic developmental evolution continue apace. Here University of Sydney, Center for Complex Systems researchers Spinney, Joseph Lizier, and Mikhail Prokopenko, propose that an informational vector can well trace and track its flight.

Recent developments have cemented the realization that many concepts and quantities in thermodynamics and information theory are shared. In this paper we consider a highly relevant quantity in information theory and complex systems, the transfer entropy, and explore its thermodynamic role by considering the implications of time reversal upon it. By doing so we highlight the role of information dynamics on the nuanced question of observer perspective within thermodynamics by relating the temporal irreversibility in the information dynamics to the configurational (or spatial) resolution of the thermodynamics. We then highlight its role in perhaps the most enduring paradox in modern physics, the manifestation of a (thermodynamic) arrow of time. We find that for systems that process information such as those undergoing feedback, a robust arrow of time can be formulated by considering both the apparent physical behaviour which leads to conventional entropy production and the information dynamics which leads to a newly defined quantity we call the information theoretic arrow of time. (Abstract)

Stewart, Ian. What Shape Is a Snowflake? New York: Freeman, 2001. This question leads to a consideration of the deeply patterned, geometrical features of a mathematical cosmos. A self-similarity seems in evidence everywhere from ice on windowpanes to galactic clusters. As a result, the universe is seen as fractal in kind because the second law of thermodynamics is said not apply to gravitating systems. This suggests an innate self-organizing drive in opposition to entropy, conceived as follows:

It has long been known that an even distribution of gravitating matter is unstable….Gravity causes the uniform state to break symmetry and leads to clumping. Because the gravitational effects turn out to be independent of scale, we expect clumping on all scales - a fractal universe.
So why doesn’t the second law work here? The second law was originally introduced to explain the behavior of gases. It shows that large collections of gas molecules, bouncing off each other, should spread out evenly. The forces between colliding molecules in a gas are short-range and repulsive….The forces between gravitating particles are the exact opposite - long-range and attractive…..The second law is a consequence of the structure of the forces assumed - short-range repulsive forces cause clumps to smooth out because particles are more likely to collide when in a clump. Gravitating systems work the other way. Their long-range attractive forces favor clumps and disrupt evenness. There has never been any reason - other than habit - to expect the second law of thermodynamics to apply to a gravitating system of particles. Our universe is outside its jurisdiction. (170)

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