May 06, 2007

Crazy Little Thing Called Life

sub marine lifeScientists have recently discovered a body of evidence regarding the existence of water on the red planet and has, for obvious reasons, gone gaga over it. They are conjuring up all the possibilities of existence of life on it.

Well, what are the basic ingredients of life? Are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and similar molecules extremely essential (mandatory) for life? What constitutes life and above all, how is life defined? If prions, (which are nothing but misfolded proteins, the cause of a myriad of illnesses like mad cow disease, kuru, scrapie and various other diseases) can be counted as living organisms, then perhaps any complex molecule or even radioactive elements like Polonium 210, which disintegrates on its own, to form many other elements, which in turn disintegrates (reminds me of Iron Maiden's 'Seventh son of a Seventh son' song), may be said to have life too, for they undergo an automatic activity. If you pore into the inside of an atom, you can see interactions in the nucleus: mesons; orbiting electrons around them, dutifully obeying Pauli's principle and many such activities that mimic life. Or are they living things themselves?

( En passant: Polonium 210 is found in tobacco in minute quantities; it was used to poison the famous Russian political dissident Alexander Litvinenko).

Life on earth perhaps needed the carbon skeleton, or it may even have been due to a chance occurrence. Microorganisms have been discovered in conditions in places, hitherto considered inviable for life (Bacillus stearothermophilus, B subtilis, Thermus aquaticus for example). The constituent of life could be molecules other than the conventional ones, even anti-matter! If we zoom in, we find tissues, cells, microtubules, mitrochondria, nucleus, the DNA and various other things which themselves are teeming with life. Zooming further still, we enter the constituent molecules to find the hadrons and the leptons, deeper still, quarks and gluons etc etc. They all seem full of life to me.

Look at the celestial objects. The sun is said to be a middle-aged star. So? Heavenly objects sometimes die a violent death: in supernova, or turn into neutron stars or black holes or some 'dwarf's. And the universe is said to have been born in the form of a major birth pang called the Big Bang. Are they living things then?

We know that there is a very small probability of finding two exactly similar humans, having all identical attributes. Likewise, no two electrons orbiting the nucleus can have the same quantum state, as per Pauli's exclusion principle (teleportation using entanglement/twiddling is an exception, for here two particles at a distance have the same properties) . This only shows that like unique human minds, the not-so-living things can also have their own uniqueness. Can they be said to have a life too, for they too move, have mass and energy. What about a cellphone or a computer or anything having AI(Artificial intelligence).

Let's be introspective. You are as much life as I am and we are made up of molecules arranged in a particular configuration: just matter; but where is the life? It may be here, in the entity called consciousness. Consciousness may be explained in terms of interactions among material elements. When we are dead, what exactly is missing? We may be brain dead, but the transplant surgeon may take out the kidney or cornea to transplant on others. Thus even after we die, we still continue to live in some of our tissues: they remain alive!

The question of life has to be addressed holistically, if we want to arrive at a sane and unanimous conclusion. Till then controversy will rage.
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