June 4th, 2005


Autocatalytic Whosamawhatsis

I'm reading Investigations by a guy named Kaufman; Tristan loaned it to me. It's incredibly difficult, but really good. Where I am (midway through chapter 2) he's managed to show how life can emerge from lifeless reactions (it has to do with graphs and complexity theory, but he describes it with remarkable clarity). Then, as an encore, he creates a definition of what he calls an "autonomous agent," by which he means a living thing. His definition ("An autocatalytic system which reproduces and is capable of performing at least one thermodynamic work cycle" -- he explains what that means, but it took me four hours to understand the explanation and realize how incredibly brilliant his definition was; basically, it's anything that eats, reproduces, performs work (in the physics sense of "work") and then resets itself to be capable of performing that work again) is truly mind-blowing -- it manages to include individual cells, organisms, anthills, and von Neumann machines, while excluding the usual failing points of over-broad definitions of life (fire, dead things, and speaker feedback, for example).

The only problem is that this book is DENSE. My brain hasn't had this much of a workout since Milton. It's apparently intended not so much for layman as for people who are specialists in one but not all of the fields he's touching on. It is very difficult to imagine your average intelligent American understanding what he's talking about -- I only understand it because I Have Smart Friends (tm) who have been attempting to explain some of these things to my sluggish, weak, English-major brain for years -- and that's sad, because what he's talking about, if true (and I love the fact that he himself is constantly pointing out that none of his ideas have been experimentally confirmed), could revolutionize our understanding of life, its origins, and one enormous whopper of a question: is the universe ultimately knowable? Because if his hunches (and he's a true scientist -- he says hunch where anybody else would say theory, and he won't say theory until it gets to the point where most people would say fact) are right, the answer is a resounding "no."

Which is a good thing if you're a scientist, because what his speculations say, if they're right, is that if we explain everything that has ever happened and everything that exists with total perfection. The universe could throw something brand new at us tomorrow.

What could be better than a quest that can never end?
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    Beethoven's 9th, Second Movement