Gravitation, Nucleosynthesis, and the Function of Life in the Cosmos.
Of the four known fundamental interactions, gravitation stands out as the least understood and most interesting in terms of thermodynamics and entropy. This “spooky action at a distance” is what makes the visible matter possible in the Universe.
I am talking about the process of nucleosynthesis – the gravitation-dependent process through which higher complexity baryonic matter are created in the otherwise homogenous and cold Cosmos.
Gravity is the hammer that anneals atoms. Our body – as well as the visible Universe – cannot exist without it. The nuclear fusion process, through which hydrogen atoms are fused to helium and gives off light – our Sun and other stars, happens because gravitation exists.
In terms of thermodynamics, gravitation tries to minimize entropy in the Universe. If we consider net cosmic angular momentum as “free energy,” then gravitation creates complexity at the cost of decreased angular momentum (all depending on macro vs microscopic perspective).
Though we cannot necessarily understand the purpose of Life, it is abundantly clear that function of Life can also be described in terms of thermodynamics. In any given scale, Life is just a heat engine.
Let me repeat this important concept:
Life is just a heat engine.
Now what is a heat engine? A heat engine does two things. It takes energy (heat) and turns it into work.
How is Life a heat engine? Life takes free energy and uses this free energy to create more and more complexity. The most obvious and significant example of this is plants.
Photosynthesis is a process through which photons are absorbed to drive the conversion of carbon dioxide and water to form carbohydrates. A leaf is a very complex heat engine.
In the solar system, photosynthesis is the most entropy-decreasing chemical process. Of the sun’s energy that ends up on the surface of our planet, it uses approximately 1/1000th of the free energy that would have been otherwise absorbed and given off as a black body radiation of our planet.
For the 99.999999% of the history of our planet, all other activity in life was a parasitical heat engines which used photosynthetic process except for chemosynthesis in deep ocean that uses geothermal energy to create complex, biologic carbon-based molecules.
I say 99.999999% because, in the recent planetary history, a species came to existence that bypassed photosynthesis altogether to use free energy for Life-heat-engine activity.
That species is us, homo sapiens.
In the past century, one member of our species came to cognitively understand how to harvest free energy of the sunlight directly. This person communicated this discovery to the rest of the species. His name was Albert Einstein; his discovery was the photoelectric effect*, whereby a method of converting sunlight directly into a readily consumable form of energy -> electricity.
So this is what we do that Life does. We are heat engines that take free energy of the sunlight and do amazing things that Life was purposed to.
Human as a single species of Life as we know it are game changers in thermodynamics and the Cosmos. We are catalysts for the Cosmos to make the impossible happen – oppose entropy in a systematic and fundamental way.
*Einstein and photoelectric effect: Many historians of the 20th century physics expound on the fact that Einstein won the Nobel Prize for the photoelectric effect and not the theory of general relativity. The reason for this was somewhat political and true. However, the significance of Einstein’s discovery of photoelectric effect has been fairly under appreciated. Only time will tell, but it may turn out that Albert Einstein’s most practical contribution to future generations of human beings may actually be the discovery of photoelectric effect.