Why are we alive? Most things in the universe aren't. And if you trace the evolutionary history of plants and animals back far enough, you will find that, at some point, neither were we. Scientists have wrestled with this problem for centuries, and no one has been able to offer a credible theory. But in 2013, at just 30 years old, biophysicist Jeremy England published a paper that has utterly upended the ongoing study of life's origins. In Every Life Is on Fire, he describes, for the first time, his highly publicized theory known as dissipative adaptation.
In any disordered system, matter clumps together and breaks apart, mostly randomly, without consequence. But some of the clumps that form are momentarily better at doing one specific job: dissipating energy. These structures are less likely to fall apart. Over time, they become better at both withstanding the disorder surrounding them and creating copies of themselves. From this deep insight, grounded in thermodynamics, England is able to isolate the emergence of the first life-like behaviors. Scientists have always thought that life began as a stroke of spectacular luck. But in fact, life may be inevitable, a product of the iron physical laws of the universe.
England is both a world-class physicist and an ordained rabbi, and so his enquiry doesn't end with the physics of life. We ask questions like "How did life begin?" not just for the fun of scientific inquiry, but because we want a deeper understanding of who we are and why we're here. Even if physics can explain how life-like behaviors emerged, England doubts that reducing life down to the energy flows of a bunch of microscopic particles can ever give us a satisfying answer to what it means to be alive?. He believes that life is fundamentally a philosophical distinction, not a natural one. So before we can seriously look for life's physical origins, we must first make basic choices about what we think life means. This is something researchers often fail to recognize, and it is why, throughout In Every Life Is on Fire, England informs the premises of his theory with a careful exploration of what life is for.
For anyone who reads this book, no matter their creed, In Every Life Is On Fire offers a rare work of popular science that explores not just what science does, but how it imbues our lives with meaning.