Life is Physics

There is nothing simple about life. Millions of carefully coordinated chemical reactions occur every second inside a single cell; billions of single-celled organisms can organize into colonies; trillions of cells can precisely stick together into tissues and organs. Yet, despite this complexity, life is easy to identify. Physicists think that this recognizability could arise from foundational physical principles that underlie all life. And they are on the hunt for a mathematical theory based on these principles that explains why life can exist and how it behaves. Such a theory, they say, could allow researchers to control and manipulate living systems in ways that are currently impossible.

Physicists love unifying theories. These theories boil complex phenomena down to a small set of ideas whose mathematical formulations can make remarkably successful predictions. For example, the laws of thermodynamics, which explain how energy moves around in systems from atoms to hurricanes, can accurately predict how long a kettle of water takes to boil. Yet despite such successes, researchers have not yet found universal equations that describe everyday phenomena relating to life. Such equations could provide the same predictive power as other unifying theories, allowing researchers to gain precise control over living things. This control could enable better treatment protocols for bacterial infections, improved therapies for cancers, and methods to prevent plants from developing resistance to weed killers.

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