From Chapter 7 of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
In 2014, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Jeremy England shook the scientific world with an audacious new explanation for the emergence of life on Earth. And in doing so, he opened the door to an intriguing explanation for how we might have gotten here, and why we’re so obsessed with understanding and changing the future.
One of the side effects of entropy is that things generally get more disorganized as the universe ages and usable energy decreases. It’s the celestial equivalent of a kitchen that becomes increasingly messy if no one’s putting in the effort to clean it, or the degradation of roads if road crews aren’t constantly fixing them.
According to the laws of physics, the universe’s future should be getting increasingly chaotic. And yet, life seems to fly in the face of this conventional wisdom. Compared to the primordial soup that existed billions of years ago, humans are an exquisite manifestation of organization and complexity. Our bodies and minds are fantastically intricate biological entities that are not only incredibly complex,
but are also able to create order out of chaos. We are, in effect, localized anti-entropy machines that have the ability to change the future from its default mode to something entirely different.
Life’s ability to buck this celestial arrow of time has puzzled scientists for decades. There are, as you would expect, plenty of explanations that scientists weave around this seeming anomaly. For instance, most scientists would argue that, while net entropy always increases, there’s nothing to stop temporary decreases at a more local level—such as the emergence of living organisms on a favorable planet. And yet, life as we know it still seems to lie so far from the apparent comfort zone of the universe that it sometimes feels like our explanations of how we came to be here are, at best, long shots.
In contrast, England came up with a possible explanation for this seeming anomaly which suggests that living organisms could be a feature of the universe we live in, rather than an exception. And, if right, his ideas could fundamentally alter our understanding of life, intelligence, and the future.
England argues that the universe is “programmed” to reach its ultimate future of heat death as fast as possible—that point where increasing entropy has eliminated all usable energy. Under normal circumstances, the speed with which this journey occurs would be limited by relatively conventional physics. But what if there were shortcuts that could accelerate this celestial decline, and get the universe to where it’s going even faster?
According to England, the emergence of life may well be one of these shortcuts.
Living organisms have an amazing ability to convert energy into less usable forms, as they suck in high-energy resources, and leave behind lower-energy “excretions” (usually in the form of heat). In this way, plants and animals are entropy-accelerating machines as they burn through the energy they receive from the sun and their surrounding environment. And humans, with their creativity and inventiveness, take this to a whole new level.
To get a sense of the scale of the entropy-acceleration we’re capable of, you only need to look at how a global population approaching eight billion is stripping the world of its usable energy resources, and leaving a trail of chaos and destruction behind it. And when you factor in our ability to invent ever more powerful and rapid ways of creating chaos, from guns and explosives to hydrogen bombs, you have to begrudgingly admire the universe for coming up with such an ingenious shortcut for accelerating the rate at which entropy increases.
England’s ideas are controversial and as yet unproven. Yet they are compelling. They grapple with the physics of systems that are a long way from thermal (or energy) equilibrium. And in doing so, they are hinting at how the laws of the universe might throw up pockets of order that seem to defy the flow of entropy, because they ultimately accelerate the journey toward its inevitable future. They also begin to create a framework that may help us better understand the emergence of life and human intelligence, and even our tendency to cause chaos in the name
If England is right, we may all be part of a celestial shortcut that is nudging the universe ever faster toward its ultimate fate. It’s a shortcut that began, however, long before humans appeared on the scene, with the earliest emergence of living organisms.