This week in what fills me with AWE: Life

At its most basic level, the universe seems to be made up of small packets of vibrating stuff, collectively known as subatomic particles. The things we consider to be matter are made up of quarks (we have found 6 types) and they don’t have mass. Three or more quarks of different types combine together to become neutrons or protons and now, for some reason, they have mass. Several different types of particles called leptons (which also comes in 6 different types – the most well known being the electron), gauge bosons (4 types, the most well known being the photon aka light) and the scalar boson (the recently discovered Higgs). We learn in high school science that the universe is basically protons, neutrons, electrons and photons (a simplified model, and good enough). Protons, neutrons and electrons have mass… but where did that mass come from?


None of these particles are alive.

Standard Model of Elementary Particles
Standard Model of Elementary Particles

[By MissMJ – Own work by uploader, PBS NOVA [1], Fermilab, Office of Science, United States Department of Energy, Particle Data Group, Public Domain,]

All of that above stuff is 4% of what we think the universe contains. There is another 26% of a similar but uncounted chunk of stuff that accounts for the extra gravity we see. It is made of something else and we call it Dark Matter (because we can’t see it directly, we can only see its effects). The universe is expanding for some reason, and that takes lots of energy. We don’t know what this energy is, so we call it Dark Energy (because we can’t see it, we can only see its effects – and because some physicists have pretty poor imaginations).


So far as we know, that Dark stuff isn’t alive either. Watch this space though – because one day we will figure out what it is and then we’ll have a much better understanding of whether it is alive or not. Right now, we just don’t know, but we assume not.


Using our high school understanding; protons, neutrons and electrons combine to make atoms. There is no life here. Atoms combine to make molecules. There is no life here either. Molecules can become quite large and do some interesting things, pretty much being nano scale machines. We don’t think there is any life here. Groups of molecules can be clumped together in things called viruses, which we also don’t think are alive per se. While they have a way to reproduce themselves, they need an external mechanism to complete that, thus they seem more machine like than life like. They are no more alive than a lever is. A lever can’t make more of itself, but it can trigger an external process that does. There is, of course, debate about this point. I can’t make more of myself without the help of another and without the help of other things… so, am I a virus? (The Matrix movie makes an argument that humans are bacteria…)


When we look at a cell in our body, we consider it to be alive. The difference between a living and a dead cell is quite noticeable. Yet each part of that living cell is dead. The cell is made up of not-alive stuff. The cyanovirus, a molecular machine, can turn a dead cell back into an alive cell that makes more cyanovirus, so the difference between the dead cell and a live cell seems to be some kind of on/off switch. The difference in how we measure a live cell and a dead cell is that the live cell does stuff while the dead cell doesn’t. That seems like a sloppy definition.


Tardigrades are fascinating micro-animals. They were first discovered in 1773 by the German zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze. Tardigrade is a phylum describing over 1,150 known species, averaging 0.3 to 0.5 mm in length, however some species get up to 4 mm in length. The most complex have about 40,000 of the above mentioned cells making up an individual mirco-animal. Tardigrades have been found pretty much everywhere on Earth that can contain life, and often places where other things can’t live. You can literally freeze them to near absolute zero, put them in a vacuum, heat them up to 150 degrees Celsius, and they’ll just keep on going. When they go out of their comfort range, they will desiccate themselves and seem dead. When

Standard Model of Elementary Particles
Standard Model of Elementary Particles

conditions return to reasonable, they re-hydrate and come back to life.

Tardigrade – one of the strongest survival machines we have on Earth

Come back to life.


An interesting phrase. When desiccated, they are basically dead. The cells do nothing. When they re-hydrate, they reanimate. Just like when the cyanovirus reanimates dead cells.


Archaea and Bacteria are the first orders of life that we consider living (remember that viruses are still controversial on whether they should be considered living or not). Both of these will move towards edible resources and away from threats. That suggests a level of awareness of their surroundings. However we can program machines to do this – so are these really alive, or just coincidentally programmed complex molecular machines?


Humans have consciousness. We are aware of ourselves, aware of our surroundings, can plan things in the future and dream up novel methods to overcome imagined problems. Some argue that this last bit – the imagination to dream up solutions – is what separates our particular species from all other life. Many “higher forms of life” have demonstrated the ability to solve present problems with novel solutions, but have not demonstrated the ability to solve problems yet to be presented.


By the same token, it is kind of hard to ask them when we don’t speak their language. We have taught some primates how to speak human language. Koko, who recently passed away, was a gorilla who was taught sign language and demonstrated some level of reasoning and emotion to circumstance (especially when her kitten passed away). However in her conversations, everything was very much in the “now”, with little to no examples of past and future tense, and has been reported to be similar to that of a very young child. Koko didn’t seem to look forward in time, however it could be argued that her grieving for her kitten shows an ability to look at the past.


Please note, racoons frequently break intelligence tests by solving problems in ways the experimenters didn’t expect them to be able to do. Racoons are probably the smartest creature on the planet.


Consciousness is more than solving problems though. It is an awareness of doing a thing. You are reading this. You are now aware of reading this. You are now aware of being aware that you are reading this. Some of you might even be aware of being aware that you just became aware of reading this… That awareness is different to a random problem solver, such as evolution. Evolution solves lots of problems by introducing a random generator and rewarding a type of success with survival and punishing a type of failure with death. We wouldn’t call evolution conscious or intentional – it solves problems, sometimes very elegantly, but it makes lots and lots of dumb mistakes too.


Assuming we do have consciousness and awareness, perhaps some other animals have it too. At what point do animals not have it? There are some very complex math problems to do with travel and networking. When bees were tested with this math problem, they came up with a very close to perfect solution. A solution that most humans would have difficulty figuring out. This wasn’t an individual bee that solved the problem, it was the whole hive of bees that solved the problem.


When we look at our bodies, we can’t point to which cell has intelligence, which cell harbours the seat of our consciousness. We have worked out that the organ called the brain is what makes decisions. Which brain cell is us? No individual brain cell seems to be it. The answer seems to be the collection of cells. If the hive is intelligent, that intelligence isn’t in any single bee, and if the brain is intelligent, it isn’t in any single brain cell. It is the collective. Kill a few bees and the hive continues mostly unaffected. Kill a few brain cells and the brain continues on, mostly unaffected. However kill enough bees and the hive collapses, and similarly kill enough brain cells and the human dies.


If you ask a single person in a farming village to estimate how much a cow weighs, that person has a chance of being accurate, but a much greater chance of being wrong. If you average the answers of the whole village, the cow is weighted pretty exactly via the collection of estimates. Are we like bees in a hive, having a much greater collective intelligence than the individual unit? When we look at human knowledge, it certainly seems that way. Humans know lots, while individual humans are pretty stupid. Believe me, I’ve met a lot of them.


One day we may leave our planet and join a federation or empire of other space faring intelligent species. Will our unit (humanity) join the bigger collective of intelligence? Destroy a single species and the collective continues, destroy enough of the collected species and the collective collapses?


It is interesting that the things that make up matter have no mass, but matter does. The things that make up life are have no life. The things that make up intelligence have no intelligence. The things that make up consciousness don’t have consciousness.


A common question in physics is “where does the mass come from?” while a common question in biology is “where does the life come from?”, and a common question in neuroscience is “where does intelligence come from?” and finally we also ask “where does consciousness come from?”


And the emergence of these aspects – mass, life, intelligence and consciousness – awes me.