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Planetary RadioFebruary 19, 2020

Life=Matter+Information: Paul Davies and the Demon in the Machine

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On This Episode
Paul Davies

Regents’ Professor Physics and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Arizona State University

Bruce Betts Head Shot 2015
Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager, The Planetary Society

Mat Kaplan
Mat Kaplan

Planetary Radio Host and Producer, The Planetary Society

Physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and author Paul Davies’ new book explores what he believes to be the defining quality of life on Earth and perhaps elsewhere. He talks about this and much more in a special, extended conversation. Paul’s book is one of the prizes in the new What’s Up space trivia contest.

The Demon in the Machine

The Demon in the Machine
Book cover of The Demon in the Machine by Paul Davies.

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Trivia Contest

This week's prizes:

A copy of Paul Davies’ new book, The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information are Solving the Mystery of Life AND a Planetary Society r-r-r-r-rubber asteroid.

This week's question:

Which NASA Ranger mission imaged Mare Tranquillitatis, the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon?

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at or write to us at no later than Wednesday, February 26th at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

Who performed the longest solo spaceflight?


The winner will be revealed next week.

Question from the February 5 space trivia contest:

The Spitzer Space Telescope was named after astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer, Jr. What was his middle name?


Lyman Spitzer, Jr’s middle name was Strong.


Mat Kaplan: [00:00:00] Talking about The Demon in the Machine with its author, Paul Davies, this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome. I'm Mat Kaplan of the Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. The full title of Paul's new book is The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life. And even that audacious title doesn't do the book full justice. On this special episode, we'll talk with Paul for nearly an hour, followed of course, by our latest look at that crowded night sky with Bruce Betts. We've got a copy of the book for the winner of Bruce's new space trivia contest. Planetary science and missions dominate our review of the latest headlines in The Downlink, the Planetary Society's digest of the biggest stories from around our little universe are collected each week [00:01:00] by editorial director, Jason Davis.

Allen Stern and the science team behind NASA's New Horizons mission released new results from the spacecraft's flyby of the Kuiper Belt object, Arrokoth last year. The findings published in the Journal of Science further support the notion that Arrokoth two round lobes formed in the same region of space, and came together in a slow speed collision. With NASA's 2020 Rover now in Florida for its summertime launch, we've learned that the European Space Agency's Rosalind Franklin Mars rover has made it to France where it will be mated to its descent module. The critical parachutes needed for the mission are still undergoing tests. NASA announced the selection of four mission concepts in its relatively low cost Discovery program. The only shame is that all four may not be funded. Two aim for Venus, another for Jupiter's violent moon, Io, with the last [00:02:00] targeting Neptune's Triton. The field should narrow to two later this year.

Lastly, your latest opportunity to slip the surly bonds of Earth without having to buy a ticket. NASA is taking applications for the next astronaut class. The window is open from March 2nd through the 31st. Who knows? You might end up on the moon or Mars. You can always find more at Don't forget that we're about to expand The Downlink. Life equals matter plus information. That's simple is at the core of Paul Davies' wonderful new book along with consideration of the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere, whether exotic quantum mechanics is utilized by living things, the staggering complexity of a single cell and much more. Paul is regents professor of physics at Arizona State University. That also where he heads the Beyond Center for Fundamental [00:03:00] Concepts in Science. A fitting role for this latter day renaissance man who is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiological, and more. The Demon in the Machine is, I believe, his 31st book.

I recently sat down with Paul at the University of California San Diego where the Arthur C. Clark Center for Human Imagination allowed us to use its studio. Paul Davies, welcome back to Planetary Radio. It has been a long time, uh, since we talked about your book, what of, about 10 years ago, the Eerie Silence. I loved that book. But this book is as awe inspiring as any nonfiction I have ever read. So uh, thank you for The Demon in the Machine, which was what we'll talk about over the next few minutes.

Paul Davies: Oh, thank you for being so enthusiastic.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] Um, and we will also uh, if your publisher's agreeable, will um, make a copy available to the winner of this week's space trivia contest that we'll get to in the What's [00:04:00] Up, uh, segment of the show that will come after this conversation. I wanna start, really, where you finish the book in your epilogue. It's, it's led by a quote from Albert Einstein, "One can best feel in dealing with living things, how primitive physics still is." Do you believe that understanding life on Earth and, and possibly elsewhere, is going to require a, a, a new understanding of physics?

Paul Davies: I do. Now, I'm a physicist. One doesn't say lightly that there is new physics going on in life. But uh, this quest to answer the question, "What is life?" Goes back uh, many, many decades. And um, most obviously, to Erwin Schrodinger, who in 1943 gave a series of lectures, famous lectures, in uh, Dublin, Ireland, which was neutral during World War Two, uh, asking the question, "What is life?" The key thing is, "Can life be understood by physics?" Well, I think every physicist would say, "Well, of course." But the real question [00:05:00] is, "Can it be understood by known physics, or does it require new physics?" Schrodinger was open minded about it. I've been open minded about it my entire career, reluctant-

Mat Kaplan: Mm.

Paul Davies: ... to suggest new physics, but I have now come to the conclusion that, yes, we need new physics, or we will discover new physics in living systems. So, biology is the next frontier of physics.

Mat Kaplan: Because you brought it up ... I mean, you mentioned these lectures by Schrodinger at a couple of places in the book. He was quite the visionary with these lectures.

Paul Davies: Oh, absolutely. Now, Schrodinger, remember, was a giant of theoretical physics. He was architect of quantum mechanics, the most successful scientific theory ever. At a stroke, quantum mechanics explained non living matter all the way from atoms, uh, atomic nuclei, subatomic particles, right up to stars, so enormously successful. But it wouldn't explain living matter, not readily anyway. And so uh, fast forward from the 1920, which was when Schrodinger and Heisenberg and [00:06:00] others put quantum mechanics together, to now, the World War Two years. And here is Schrodinger, uh, somewhat isolated from the mainstream because he's in neutral Ireland. He didn't join the allied war effort. He's living there with his wife and his mistress, and able to indulge his, uh, fancies by turning his attention to this, uh, really deep problem about the nature of life.

And there was a lot of speculation in the 1930 that, you know, "Wa- was quantum mechanics going to explain life, or wouldn't it explain life? And what did, what did it take?" And he gave these lectures, and it's widely attributed uh, to Schrodinger, uh, what we think of as now, as the birth of molecular biology. So, Crick and Watson, uh the, who discovered the structure of DNA were famously influenced by this book. A lot of people were. And so it was a very influential book. Uh, but then d- d- decades rolled by and everyone was rushing to understand life at the molecular level, and [00:07:00] in my view, lost sight of the big picture, uh, that it's ... Life is much more than, uh, what's going on at molecular level.

Mat Kaplan: Which is much of what you address in this book. Uh, there's a very simple equation, or at least statement, in the book, which is in the biggest typeface in the book. And it uh, is, "Life equals matter plus information." Does that mean that you believe that information is the distinguishing quality of what sets living matter apart from thi- the rest of stuff?

Paul Davies: It is. And of course, I have to explain that information, uh, in this scientific context is not just like when we use it in everyday life, information in a bus timetable or something of that sort. Uh, information as a physical quantity ... Uh, now, there's a history precedent. Uh, we use the word, energy, in daily life. And it's got sort of rough and ready meaning. But physicists define energy in a very precise way. And it enters into the laws of [00:08:00] physics. We now know that information, properly defined, enters into the fundamental laws of physics, into the laws of thermodynamics, in fact. And the demon in the title of the book, uh, refers to something called Maxwell's demon. Uh, and uh, just to take you through the history of this, so, in the uh, middle of the 19th century, there was a lot of interest in the nature of heat. And uh, James Clerk Maxwell, then working at King's College in London, made seminal contributions to the theory of heat. And he came up with a curious thought.

It was not much more than a, a musing, which he put in a letter to a friend. Uh, and that was ... Imagine some diminu- diminutive, uh, being, which came to be called a demon, uh, who could see and follow molecules in their paths, and then direct them using a shutter mechanism to one side of a box or another. By doing that, could accumulate, uh, the fast moving molecules one side, and the slow moving [00:09:00] molecules, the other. And now, because molecular speed is a measure of temperature, uh, the demon would in effect, have used the information about molecular motion to create a temperature difference. And any competent engineer could then build a, an engine to run off that temperature difference and do useful work. So, it looked like information was a type of fuel, but it seemed paradoxical. It seemed to fly in the face of the cherished second law of thermodynamics, which says basically, "We can't get something for nothing." It looked like Maxwell had invented the perpetual motion machine.

Uh, and this lay like an inconvenient truth at the heart of physics for decades and decades. Uh, but now, just in the last few years, nanotechnology has advanced to the point where we can make ... I say we, uh, my experimental colleagues can actually make Maxwell demons. They can uh, uh, make these little devices, which use information about thermal agitation to gain a work advantage. You can only do it on a nano scale. Uh, this isn't going to [00:10:00] revolutionize, uh, kitchen refrigerators-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: ... any time soon. But nevertheless, the principle is established, that information is a source of fuel. It enters into the laws of physics. So, it has some physical purchase, and that's the point. It's a little chink that opens the way to explaining how information can make a difference when it comes to the amazing things living organisms do.

Mat Kaplan: You've reminded of a, of a clever little science fiction story once written by the great Larry Niven where it was the time of magic on this planet. And a, a wizard visiting another wizard in his cave wonders why it's so much cooler in the cave. And the, the host wizard says, "Oh, it's really quite simple. I cast this spell. And I have this little sprite or demon who kicks out all the fast moving molecules. It was an air ... A, a demon air conditioner.

Paul Davies: Right [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. You mention the second law. It is the demons. Therefore, maybe among other things, who help living things like you and, you and [00:11:00] me to, uh, at least temporarily, win the battle against entropy?

Paul Davies: So, one of the distinguishing features about life, uh a- always comes up in conversation, is it seems to back the trend of going, uh, from order to disorder. So uh, a- any of our listeners with teenage children would know all about this.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: Uh, just look in their bedrooms. Uh, you know, it's very easy to, to make things messy, uh, very hard to clean things up. But life does seem to go the other way. It seems to create a, as Schrodinger uh, uh expressed it, "Order from order, evermore order." And so it seems to go the opposite way. Now, some people have seized on that and said, "Oh, uh, therefore, it's got to be a miracle." Or something. Uh, not a bit of it because when you look at the whole picture, uh, you see that the order in living organisms is paid for by disorder in the environment. And so the book's balanced. But within the organism itself ... Remember, life is an open system. And that's a really important point of [00:12:00] trying to, uh, explain what is going on. It's not a closed system. Uh, it's an open system. And then uh, within, down at the molecular level, within uh, cells, uh, they are replete with little Maxwell demons, [inaudible 00:12:13] away, carrying out the business of life, playing the margins of thermodynamics.

Some of these little engine or, or motors or, uh, uh, uh, little drives uh, are almost 100% perfectly efficient. So, and I'm thinking, for example, of the way DNA gets copied. There's a [inaudible 00:12:30] motor. Uh, there are other uh, little motors that pump p- protons and so on. And these are operating right on the edge of uh, of perfection. We can't do that in, with our machines in, uh, daily life, uh, except in, in nanotechnology. And so life has perfected ... And obviously th- billions of years ago, this ability to play these margins. The case that is most striking ... Although when you look at details, the, the demonics are not [00:13:00] 100% efficient, but they're still good. The case is the human brain.

Mat Kaplan: [crosstalk 00:13:04].

Paul Davies: Uh, so we have something with the capability of a megawatt super computer but operating at the level, energy level of a dim light bulb. Uh, and that just shows how incredibly thermodynamically efficient information processing and this thing between our ears can be.

Mat Kaplan: So, we obviously, still have much to learn from biology up here in the, the grosser physical world [laughs].

Paul Davies: Uh, well, there are two things here. One is uh, that we can certainly, uh, learn how to play a few, as it were, thermodynamic tricks, uh, that would improve the performance of our macroscopic systems. Sa- that is undeniably true. But I think it goes deeper than that because information in biology is more than just thermodynamics. We tend to think of information in a, as it were, a manage- management or supervisory role, uh, that there are ... The information in biology is much more than that contained in our genes. That's what most people think of. Uh, [00:14:00] they think that the, the code book of life or something like that. But genes, uh, don't act in isolation. Uh, they switch each other, other on and off. They form complex networks works. Information swirls around these networks.

A lot of people study that, patters of information, uh, information flow. Uh, it goes right on up to, uh, the level of cells. So, they signal. They're signaling molecules. Uh, so they signal chemically, but also, we now know, electrically and mechanically this information transfer is taking place. Then right up to social insects. So, they engage in collective decision making, for example. Or you think of the coordination of birds in a, in a flock. In fact, it goes right up ... When you look at the, uh, information, the web of information of life of Earth, i- it's on a planetary scale. And I like to say that the biosphere is the original worldwide web.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Paul Davies: It is a web of information. Uh, and that information is doing more than just, uh, i- improving the thermodynamic efficiency. Uh, it is behaving [00:15:00] in ... Technical term is that this is semantic. It means something. So, the uh, paths of a genome are the coding parts. Uh, the genes themselves are coding for something. Uh, and I should mention that that information is encrypted, and has to be decrypted, and then expressed. Uh, ri- ribosomes make proteins using that information that flows from the DNA. So, that uh, uh, level of information processing means that this is more just, uh, bits of information. It's information which has meaning or content and can be interpreted by the ribosome, and then expressed. And, and that notion of meaningful or semantic, or contextual information is something that we have no idea how to incorporate that into physics. Uh, that's where the new physics will lie, trying to understand, going beyond just the thermodynamics of this to that, uh, realm of semantics. But we need it matters. We know it makes a difference to the way organisms behave. It's got to have physical [00:16:00] effects.

Mat Kaplan: You have in this, i- touched on, really just scratched the surface of the complexity of life even of a single cell. You made me remember as I went deeper and deeper into these mind boggling complex processes, that life has mastered just within a cell ... Uh, when I was in a high school biology class, I remember being blown away because I, I learned about these tiny fibers, which before a, a cell splits in myositis, these fibers reach out to the chromosomes or chromatids, and literally pull them apart before the ce-, the cell splits into two.

Paul Davies: Yeah, but where is the choreographer?

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] Yes, exactly. And I thought ... Event that time, I thought, "Oh, my goodness. This is so complex." That's nothing compared to some of the complexity that you talk about in this book within a single cell.

Paul Davies: Now, it is, it is true it's staggering. And i- in [00:17:00] fact, one of the great challenges is to put a measure to that, just how complex ... Uh, can you measure complexity? All sorts of different ways you might try and do that. Uh, can we, uh, somehow understand whether their complexity grows over time? Is there a fundamental law of the growth of complexity? When we look at the biosphere, it looks like there's certainly more complex organisms around today than there were. Is that a trend? Or is it just the exploration of the space of possibilities? All these things are unresolved. But the complexity, the level of complexity is truly staggering. And I think there has been a tendency, uh, to say, "Well, life is, uh, seems like magic." Because it is so complex, but deep down at the level of atoms, it's just, uh, known physics. Uh [crosstalk 00:17:45].

Mat Kaplan: It's [crosstalk 00:17:45] sort of the God-of-the-gaps, uh, argument, right?

Paul Davies: Uh, yes. Yes. And I think uh, this sort of overreductionistic view, " Well, if we knew enough about, uh, the physics of individual molecules and put it all together, we'd have a explanation for uh, the totality." And I just [00:18:00] think, uh, that's wrong. And I think to be hung up on the complexity ... So, it's a little bit like the problem of trying to explain, uh, some sophisticated bit of computer software by saying, "Well, uh, we could in principle, give a complete explanation in terms of where the electrons are moving in the microchip."

Mat Kaplan: [crosstalk 00:18:20].

Paul Davies: "And uh, if we listed all this, and it would very complex, but you know, we'll give an account of what is going on your computer screen." And we all know this is an absurd way of looking at it. [inaudible 00:18:31] you talk to a software engineer, and you'll be given a fairly compact description of what is going on. So, the real causal story uh, in the case of a computer ... Take [something like Photoshop or PowerPoint, or something like that, an explanation for PowerPoint will come without making reference to the underlying circuitry or anything of that sort. And I think that's where ... We need to move to that situation with life. We need use this, uh, software information type language. And I'm not alone in that. So, Paul Nurse, the former president of the Royal [00:19:00] Society has written very eloquently on the need to think in these sort of informational terms. And comparing living organisms a bit to, like uh, uh, computers or electronic devices where we have modules that fulfill certain well defined functions. For example log- logical functions, they're ... Uh, even microbes can carry out, uh, logical operations.

Uh, we don't have to worry what's going on the molecular level. We just sort of say, "What is this module doing? What is its function? How is it communicating and sending information to other modules?" Uh, and looking at those patterns of information flow. And that's where we will really come to understand life, at that software level.

Mat Kaplan: So, I can use my Windows laptop without being able to write or modify the code in Windows.

Paul Davies: Right.

Mat Kaplan: But really, that's where the mysteries lie.

Paul Davies: Yes, uh, uh, it i- ... So, for uh, I like to say, to me, Windows seems like magic, life seems like magic.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: Uh, we know they're not magic, but we know that you will fail to catch a, an adequate [00:20:00] description of both of them if we just want to talk about electrons flying around wires or something of that sort.

Mat Kaplan: Something obviously is directing all of this. And the common assumption is, "Oh, well, it's all in the DNA." Right? "It's all in the, that double helix." And yet, it turns out to be far more complex than that, as you explore in the book, because DNA as you say, is ... Turns out, not to be read-only memory, ROM. It's a read-write system.

Paul Davies: Uh, that's absolutely right. So, what has happened uh, o- over the last 30 years or so, is an appreciation that the secret of life doesn't lie in DNA alone. I think there was feeling, "Well, you just sequence, uh, genomes of organisms, and you'll get a complete explanation of what they do and how they do it." Uh, genes are only, uh, good if they're expressed. And uh, what determines, uh, whether genes are expressed or not, uh ... Well, there's [inaudible 00:20:52] this fake terms called epigenetics. Uh, epigenetics can involve all sort of things from the cell and from its environment. So for [00:21:00] example, even uh, mechanical forces acting on a cell can affect, uh, the genes it express. Famous example, it's called contact inhibition. You grow cells in a Petri dish. They were grown till they hit a boundary. And then they would stop growing. So, they sense the, uh, barrier in their environment. So, just a simple mechanical effect like that can change how genes express themselves.

Mat Kaplan: You said, you told me before we started recording that, uh, that you have colleagues at Arizona State who are also looking at these epigenetic effects on cells in orbit, in microgravity.

Paul Davies: That's right. So, uh, if you send bacteria to the Space Station, uh, they will express different genes from what they do down where. And uh, that can affect astronaut microbiomes. So for example, it may be that, uh, particular ba- bacterium in our guts doesn't cause any problem down here, but feels different up there because this, uh, this little microbe thinks, "Oh, I'm, [00:22:00] I'm floating. And I'm going to express this gene and not that gene." And uh, the astronaut may get sick. So, this is the work of Cheryl Nickerson at Arizona State university. It's just one example of how physical forces, uh, affect gene expression. The other one that I love is the work of, uh, Mike Levin at Tufts University. And we have a research project with him. And he likes to chop up worms. And uh, there are these little worms called uh, planaria. When you, uh, chop them in two, the heads grow a tail or the head grows a head. So, you can multiply them, uh, very easily by chopping them into bits.

You can chop them into a- actually many bits. And the uh, fragments from the middle remember which way was the the head and which way is the tail. That information is not in the genes. This is a classic example of epigenetics because the morphology, the physical form of these worms, is determined by something other than their DNA. So, he can manipulate these worms to make them grow two heads and two tails. He does this by changing the electrical patterning.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Paul Davies: So, he uh ... So, we understand [00:23:00] that uh, uh, uh, electricity plays a really important part in the development and uh, and in wound healing and in cancer. All of these things are related. Uh, he can manipulate them, and get two-headed worms and two-tailed worms. They have identical DNA, so identical genetics. But the epigenetics, the expression of those genes, is quite different. And the uh, uh, most entertaining aspect of that is he chops the middle out of normal worms with a head a tail, sends uh, those middles to the Space Station, uh, about 15% of them came back with two heads.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. My conversation with Paul Davies is far from finished. I'm just pausing for a minute so that I can once again, thank Amazon Prime Video's The Expanse for bringing you this week's show. You've probably heard my praise for season four of this superb science fiction series. Of course, I love everything about The Expanse, including the first three seasons of the TV series and all the books. [00:24:00] Thanks again, Jeff Bezos, for rescuing the show when it was dropped by Syfy. To recap without giving away too much, I hope, our heroes, the crew of The Rocinante have passed through the Ring Gate, heading toward a distant world that has enormously valuable natural resources. Earth has sent an approved group of miners, but a ragtag bunch of refugee Belters has beat them to the planet.

The inevitable conflicts that follow it become far more dangerous when ancient alien artifacts come back to to life. I can't possibly do it justice. So, just hitch a ride on The Rocinante. The Expanse season four is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video. Back to Paul Davies, author of The Demon in the Machine. How does a gene living deep inside a cell that is deep inside my body know that the is being in a different, uh, electrical or gravitational [00:25:00] environment? I mean, it's just a molecule.

Paul Davies: [crosstalk 00:25:01].

Mat Kaplan: Or, or r- st- a, a line of molecules.

Paul Davies: Uh, right. So, this is where, uh, physicists, um, by tradition have, uh, thought always in a bottom-up fashion. Uh, that is that, uh, we tend to think that physical effects are local effects, that they, uh ... We can always say what is happening at a particular of in space and time, or to a particular uh, subatomic particle at that particle. But uh, when it comes to biology, uh, that's uh, totally inadequate. Now, there's a tendency to think that, bottom-up there that, "Well, a gene is a strand of, uh, of DNA. It's a, it's a segment of DNA." Uh, and that it sends out a, a message. And this is expressed as a, as a protein. And the organism then, uh, behaves differently. And there is obviously a bottom-up narrative. But there's equally a top-down narrative that what is happening, uh, in the cell's microenvironment, signals it may receive from other cells or pressure on the ... Or [00:26:00] stress forces on the surface of the cell, or electrical forces, or gr- gravitational, as I- I've explained, can uh, act in a downward sense right down to the level of those genes.

And the genes that get expressed depend on that, that environment. So, we need to recast the physics that's going on in, in these cells to include a bottom-up and a top-down narrative. Again, I come back to ... If we express this in informational terms, uh, then uh, this is a lot easier to do. If you want to express in terms of what molecules pushes which, it then becomes unmanageably complicated.

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: But in terms of the information flow, it goes bottom-up and top-down. Uh, the case that I like best of all, I might say, is uh, gr- chromatin structure. So, in eukaryotic cells, complex cells with nuclei, uh, the genes are mostly in the chromosomes. And these chromosomes don't just sit there like you see in the textbooks. Um, uh, they have a complex architecture that is highly dynamic [00:27:00] and it changes. Uh, and for a lot of the time, a particular gene that might, the cell might want to express with be, uh, simply smothered by all of the ... Uh, it's called chromatin, this material [inaudible 00:27:12] the chromatin in its, uh, vicinity. And this chromatin then has to be reconfigured. Uh, there're all sorts of little wires and strings and things that will do that.

It has to be reconfigured in order that that gene, uh, is exposed to the readout machinery. And so this is another example epigenetics. So, the gentes that get expressed depend upon [inaudible 00:27:32] chromatin architecture and that can, can be, uh, top-down as well as bottom-up.

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: There can be, uh, forces from the environment that will change uh, that architecture and lead to differential gene expression.

Mat Kaplan: This brings me back to consideration of evolution and, specifically, the mutations apparently drive it, which I always thought ... I think I was taught that these were random. And you say in the book, maybe not.

Paul Davies: [00:28:00] Yes. I think one of the most surprising things coming out of, uh ... We might call it the new biology, uh, is that in- individual causes of mutations might be random. For example, cosmic rays-

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Paul Davies: ... uh, you know, wouldn't, wouldn't come with a plan, "I'm gonna hit this, uh, particular part of, uh, DNA or, or other." But there are many, many uh, examples of mutations, which uh, when you, when you actually look at the statistics, appear to be non random. Some of these are, are clearly self inflicted. Now, uh, [inaudible 00:28:31] used to the, a notion of gene editing. Uh, CRISPR-Cas9, uh, technology now, uh, enables human beings to go in and edit genomes. So, we can certainly do that. [crosstalk 00:28:43].

Mat Kaplan: With unprecedented ease.

Paul Davies: Uh, y- that's right.

Mat Kaplan: [crosstalk 00:28:45].

Paul Davies: But cells uh, edit their genomes all the time. Uh, there are errors, and they edit them out. Or they uh, can choose to not edit them out. Uh, there're all sorts of ways that cells can ... Their, their DNA is not just fixed. You know, it's, it's subject to uh, to these editing processes. [00:29:00] When you look at the small complex picture, uh, it's very far from random. Uh, and uh, and [inaudible 00:29:07] in uh, in cancer biology where a certain-

Mat Kaplan: Mm.

Paul Davies: ... particular mutations, uh, seem to arise again and again. G- these mutations can sometimes be, uh, gross uh, changes. Uh, for example, uh, transpositions of whole chunks of, uh, chromosomes. That's very far from random.

Mat Kaplan: You don't see this ... Not Lamarckism, but you don't see this as a denial of Darwinism, so called. You call-

Paul Davies: No, an elaboration of it.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, Darwinism 2.0.

Paul Davies: Yes. So uh, a lot of people uh, just fall for this trap. Just because the original version of Darwinism is inadequate to explain some important aspects of biology, it doesn't mean Darwin was wrong anymore than Newton was wrong about the laws of gravitation. We have a better theory now. Einstein theory that embeds Newton's theory. Uh, science [inaudible 00:29:58] answers by better and better fits to the [00:30:00] facts. And so Darwinism uh, is uh, astonishing how powerful it has been, given that it was formulated, uh, so long ago. And yet it has, uh, stood the test of time. But uh, it would be really foolish to say that the austere original version of Darwinism, random mutation, natural selection, end of story, uh, is going to e- explain everything.

And now, uh, what we're seeing with this, uh, uh field of epigenetics, uh, is that we have to augment the original Darwinian scheme with all of these other features which are uh, being worked through. And uh, uh, biologists uh, working at the cutting edge are now completely familiar with it. But I'm not sure how much the general public has caught up with the fact that the old reductionistic, uh, view of Darwinism, uh, has really been uh, superseded uh, really quite a long time ago.

Mat Kaplan: We will turn to cancer, but I'll start that uh, by talking about, uh, your discussion of multicellular organisms, [00:31:00] uh, including yours truly, that this is, this represents a contract between individual cells and the organism. Perhaps, a topic for another day would be this jump from, "Maybe, maybe not life is a natural process within the universe, the, the origin of life." But a lot of scientists believe it's this jump from the single celled animals, bacteria especially, to you and me. That may be the bigger hurdle. But it is this ability to collaborate, to cooperate among all these cells, which you, you, talk about in the book.

Paul Davies: Yeah, two billions years ago, there was one imperative, "Replicate, replicate, replicate."

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: Because this was the realm of, of single cells. And that's all they had to do. So, they were immortal, in effect. Uh, And then uh, along came this, uh, other way of doing life, which we now call multicellularity. It's actually evolved many times. Uh, and what happens here is [00:32:00] that the immorality of cells is outsourced to specialized, uh, germ cells, so eggs and sperm. The rest of the cells, so-called somatic cells in the collective in the organism, uh, their part of that contract is that they can, uh, replicate for a while, or they can be sustained for a while. But eventually, they're supposed to die. We have stem cells th- that can replenish them. Uh, and for the organism to work properly, uh, you have to avoid cheating. Uh, what happens in an organism like a human being is we've got all these, uh, different specialized cells, uh, kidney cells, liver cells, skin cells, and so on. And they have to listen to the, uh, regulatory signals that they get, "Yeah, uh, you die now. You die now. Uh, you, you get replaced now."

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: And so on. And if it's all working fine ... And very complex, uh, layer upon layer of regulatory control. But if something breaks down, either a part of the regulation or an individual decides [00:33:00] to cheat, then cancer results. And so this is a contract struck between the cells of uh, uh, somatic cells of a body and the organism as a whole about one and a half billion years ago. Uh, so, so, I mentioned uh, that uh, multicellularity, it has evolved many times. And that's over a period, between about one and a half billion years ago and a few hundred million years ago. And so uh, that contract breaks down. And uh, the cancer cells are, uh, making a bid for immortality. They want, they're try- ... They're a throwback. They're trying to wind the clock back to the glory days of, "Replicate, replicate, replicate."

My understanding of cancer is that it is a, a reversion, uh, or a throwback or an atavism, and um, that we have to understand it that way if we're ever going to treat it properly.

Mat Kaplan: So, cancer is [laughs] ... It's the downside of multicellular life.

Paul Davies: Right. So, it's great for the cancer cells because [00:34:00] they're uh, uh, r- uh, r- reawakening their inner immortality. But of course, it's bad for the host. But the cells don't know that. Uh, they don't know that they're in a, in a host that has a different agenda. Uh, and so they're very successful in their own way. But because they're proliferation is really, uh, Life 101 ... So, this is ...

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: When life began, uh, the most fundamental thing that it had to do was to proliferate. And uh, it then had to learn a whole lot of tricks, uh, to combat challenges to its proliferative ability. Uh, for example, if there were poisons, then it [inaudible 00:34:37] pump, pump them out. Or radiation, you know, learn to repair the radiation damage and so on. So, there're all sorts of ways that, uh, individual cells spent billions of years coming up with defense mechanisms to combat their proliferative ability. But unfortunately, most cancer treatment tries to change that ability. It ge-, it targets the replicative, [00:35:00] uh, uncontrolled replicative uh, prowess of cancer cells. But you're sort of [inaudible 00:35:05] to nothing because that's the one thing that cells really know how to get around. And they evolve around whatever you throw at them, uh, pretty quickly.

And so part of the reason cancer is such a dreadful disease is because of the development of resistance, uh, to chemotherapy. Uh, so targeting that, the strength of cancer, in that way is, is always going to be fighting a losing battle, I, I'm sad to say. But if we want to, to uh, be smarter about tackling cancer, we tackle its weaknesses, not its strength.

Mat Kaplan: Ih- it is eventually not healthy for the cancer cells themselves. They die with the organism.

Paul Davies: Oh, yeah. But they don't know that-

Mat Kaplan: If-

Paul Davies: They don't know this is going to happen.

Mat Kaplan: But if only we could reason with them.

Paul Davies: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. Um, a- and in a sense, uh, doesn't that, in a somewhat fanciful way, address how you think we should attack this problem? Uh, I mean, we need to change the, [00:36:00] the flaws in the information. Or they're not really flaws.

Paul Davies: Yes. Uh, or ... That's quite right. My dream-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: ... is that, uh, if we treat, uh ... If we think of cancer in these informational terms, that this will be a little bit like, uh ... We were talking about uh, you know, Photoshop or PowerPoint. You have a bug in the program. And it's ... "Uh, it's doing this annoying thing. [inaudible 00:36:19] what, what can we do about it?" And sometimes, you can go online and download a patch. You know, and it sort of fixes it. Sometimes, you actually have to reinstall the operating, you know, and, and all things in between. Uh, imagine if we could uh, treat uh, uh, diseases like that. Uh, we could reboot cells or, or download patches that would take care of some of these flaws. And, and it may be this isn't a perfect fix, but uh, what you want to do is take a cancer cell and make it sort of behave better. In other words [inaudible 00:36:49] we can live with some little bugs and, and flaws.

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: But we don't want them to be a sort of rampant breakdown. Don't ask me how we might do that in practice, but you know, that's the vision I have, that in the longer term, [00:37:00] we will uh, reboot in that manner. But in the, the shorter term, I think we need to get away from the mindset, "People are justifiably scared of cancer. And if they're diagnosed with cancer, they want it annihilated." Uh, and, and many of the treatments, uh, bring the cancer patient to death's door. And people think it's a price they're prepared to pay, uh, just to get rid of this horrid stuff. And every, they want every cancer cell, you know, destroyed, uh, because they feel like it's an invader. But if we can get to point where we can say, "Look, uh, we can manage the cancer. We [inaudible 00:37:32] to uh, treat, treat it, but not annihilate it, and turn it into a chronic disease. And you'll be living with the cancer." As we're all living cancer anyway.

And the point is, uh, uh, the body is very good at containing cancer. It has all sorts of things like immune surveillance. And uh, uh, uh, in the microenvironment of cancer cells, are various chemical signals and things that will normally keep cancer in check. People present with clinical symptoms when some of those [00:38:00] systems break down.

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: Uh, but if we would say, "Well, [inaudible 00:38:03] we want to restore, uh, that uh, the body's own way of containing the cancer." We can live with it. And so if you say to somebody ... Uh, and this is a, a, a very common scenario. You might be a, uh, uh, uh, diagnosed with a primary tumor. And you might have surgery to remove that tumor. And you'll probably be told that there's a 50/50 chance or that [inaudible 00:38:26] some number that the cancer will come back in, uh, five years or 10 years or something like that. And that's the, the depressing truth. If you could say, "Well, uh, our cancer management strategy is such that there's a 50% chance it will come back in 50 years." Then I think most of us would feel, "Well, I've got other things to worry about on the health front."

Uh, so we turn cancer into a chronic disease that we manage much like we do, say, with diabetes. Uh, you live with it. You make the best of it. Uh, you don't try and annihilate it. [00:39:00] Uh, but that mindset, it, it means a reeducation of the public into thinking that cancer isn't something that you've just got to go in with all guns blazing, and uh-

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Paul Davies: ... try to annihilate. It's often counterproductive. C- the cancer bites back even more, uh, ferociously, uh, than before.

Mat Kaplan: And the treatment, as you said, it is sometimes worse than-

Paul Davies: The, the ... Yes. Uh.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah.

Paul Davies: And, and, and in fact, uh, as people get older, they, they'll often be denied treatment because their body-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: ... simply isn't resilient enough to withstand-

Mat Kaplan: Yes [crosstalk 00:39:31].

Paul Davies: ... the effects of the treatment.

Mat Kaplan: Let's turn to quantum mechanics.

Paul Davies: Right. A happier subject, I think.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] Yes, I hope so. Uh, o- obviously, something ... Its role in living systems that fascinates you as it has so many, Schrodinger among them. To what degree do you think we are quantum mechanical creatures?

Paul Davies: So, it's rather fascinating that the subject that is now, uh, known as quantum biology has sort of bubbled up, uh, over the last 10 or 20 years. I've run a few workshops at the Beyond Center [00:40:00] on quantum biology. And, and I sit very firmly on the fence. It's undeniable that here and there, life exploits quantum effects. And why wouldn't it? If it gives living systems some little advantage, uh, 5% here, 10% there, it will be selected for. What we'd all like to know is, "Are these just little quirks?" Uh, or, "Is uh, are they tips of a quantum mechanical iceberg?" In other words, is it that case that fundamentally quantum phenomena underpinned this magic of life?

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Paul Davies: So, does the magic of quantum mechanics explain the magic of life? I have yet to be convinced myself. Uh, but I try to keep an open mind. Uh, and some people will say, "Well, of course, quantum mechanics e- explains life. It explains chemistry." Uh, but that's not what we're talking about. When people refer to quantum biology, they normally mean some weird quantum effects like tunneling or e- entanglement where two particles a long way apart seem to be [00:41:00] communicating with each other in some magical way [crosstalk 00:41:03].

Mat Kaplan: Spooky action [crosstalk 00:41:04] the distance.

Paul Davies: Yes. [crosstalk 00:41:04] as Einstein called it, yeah. And so there are these, uh, various, as it were, nontrivial quantum effects. Uh a, uh, and again, it's uh, it does seem ... I'm fairly convinced that here and there, life is making use of them. But I suspect there's, there's a lot more to be discovered. The trouble is that, uh ... Well, there are two problems. One is the experimental one, uh that, as we've discussed, life is very complex. And most of our understanding of quantum physics is based on simple systems, atoms and simple molecules, and photons and things like that. So, teasing out the quantum goings on this complex environment is very difficult. The other thing is that living organisms are warm and wet, uh, very noisy in terms of the-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: ... thermodynamic sense. There's molecules banging around, lots of uh, complicating factors. That is the opposite of what you need to look at pure quantum effects. So, if you [00:42:00] go to a lab, uh, and uh, you're interested in uh, testing the foundations of quantum mechanics, it's, it's full of, uh, pipes and pumps. Uh, and things are done at a very low temperature to cut out this thermal noise uh, when ... Uh, where you really see the pure quantum effects like superconductivity and so on is a very low temperatures. Uh, uh, room temperature or blood temperature, uh, then uh, it's very hard to see how quantum effects are really going to matter. But quantum mechanics is, has sprung surprises before. And there's things like high temperature superconductors that nobody expected. Who knows what might be going on, uh, inside living organisms?

Mat Kaplan: Isn't one of those surprises that some believe they have already evidence for it, of the, the, the quantum contribution to photosynthesis?

Paul Davies: Yes. This is one of the, uh, examples. It seems pretty clear cut now, though, there are of course, uh, some skeptics. Uh, you might think, "Well, across photosynthesis is uh, is uh, quantum [00:43:00] effect." Well, it's photons [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: [crosstalk 00:43:02] but that's not the sense in which, uh, that we uh, discuss it. Uh, what happens is uh, that ... In photosynthesis, is that these photons are captured by complex [inaudible 00:43:12] molecules. And their job, the energy that uh, they bring is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. And then that's a part of, of what gives the plant uh, energy. And it can make biomass that way. Um, but the chemical reaction center is over here. And the, uh, light harvesting center is over there. And it's a little bit like having a factory that makes stuff. And you've got solar panels powering it, but the solar panels are in the next town. And you've got to get energy from uh, one town to another. That's uh, the case with, uh photosynthesis. That energy has to be transported and you don't want to lose any on the way. And life seems to have evolved a, a very, very clever way of doing that. Quantum coherently is the technical term. And uh, what that really means, if people know anything [00:44:00] at all about quantum mechanics, there are no ... There's this thing called wave particle duality.

An electron can sometimes be be a part like ... Behave like a particle, sometimes, like a wave. Same thing with a photon. Is it a wave? Is it a particle? Well, it's sort of both, and it depends on the circumstances. Uh, what is happening in this, uh, energy transport is uh, the wave like nature of the energy is manifested uh, as it makes it way through a complex of molecules. And uh, waves have this um, uh, well known property of uh, interference. Uh, if you get a peak of one wave with a trough of another, uh, they cancel each other out. If they arrive peak to peak, they amplify. Uh, and those sorts of effects can ... And in, in this case, I think do lead to a speed up of the [inaudible 00:44:47] increase in efficiency of the way the energy's transported, uh, to the reaction center.

And this has been studied in quite some detail with laser pulses and so on, uh, and particularly the work of Graham Fleming at [00:45:00] uh, in Berkeley that blazed a trail in this area. And it's w-, it's one of several examples that have been studied where quantum mechanics really does to make a difference in biology.

Mat Kaplan: What about the speculation which also goes pretty far back that quantum effects, quantum mechanics, may help us understand or may explain how the brain achieves what it does?

Paul Davies: There's always been this speculation that quantum mechanics and consciousness somehow connect up. And the reasons for that is very profound and will take us a long time to go into them in detail. Uh, but it is, in essence, that quantum mechanics describes a world that is uncertain and indeterministic, and fuzzy. Down at the atomic level, you can fire an electron at an atom and it may bounce to the left. And you do a identical experiment tomorrow, and it bounces to the right. You can't say in advance, what it's going to do. So, there's a indeterminism. [00:46:00] And the fuzziness means that you can't pin down all of the things the electron is doing, uh, at any one time or any other particles. So, there's a sort of ghostliness to the quantum world down at the atomic level. But there's no ghostliness in everyday life.

When we make observations, if you look, you want to determine, "Where is an electron?" You can do an experiment, and it's there. It's an electron at a place. Or you can do some other experiment, and you find that an electron is moving in a certain way. You can't do these experiments together. But whatever you, the observer, decide to measure, you get a definite result.

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Paul Davies: So somehow, between the fuzzy ghostly world of atoms and molecules, and the concrete everyday world of human beings, the uh, fuzziness has congealed or concretized into a definite reality. So, it's as if there are an infinite number of parallel possible realities at the atomic level, but only one reality in daily life. And some people have thought, "Well, uh therefore, the acts of observation, the [00:47:00] entry into the consciousness of the individual, uh, is doing something important at the quantum level. The consciousness is somehow concretizing the fuzzy world of, uh, atomic physics. So, the, most famously Eugene Vigna, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, suggested that. Very, very few of my colleagues, uh, will be prepared to go along with that, but they would all acknowledge that, uh, when it comes to consciousness, either quantum mechanics will explain consciousness, or it won't.

And if it doesn't, then there's something new going on in the brain. Uh, some people have tried to come at it from the other direction, uh, to say, "Well, are there quantum effects in the brain?" Uh, a bit like we described ph- photosynthesis. There's something like that going on inside the brain down at the level of, uh, large molecules. Most uh, famously, Roger Penrose, the Oxford mathematician-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: ... suggested many years ago ... And his collaboration with Stuart Hameroff [inaudible 00:47:58] the uh, University of [00:48:00] Arizona has been to determine whether there are nontrivial quantum effects taking place in the little tubules inside cells, uh, and that uh, i-in the brain, that there's some quantums, quantum goings on that explain consciousness. I'd say I'm very skeptical, personally. But the great thing about being a scientist is you can be both skeptical and open minded at the same time. And good scientists should always be that. We should always listen to what our colleagues have to say. And if we think, "Well, I'm still not convinced, but you know, keep up the good work." Uh, that's fine. And that's the attitude I take.

Mat Kaplan: Here, here. You do talk about ... And maybe it's the overarching principle of this portion of the book, that as we look for quantum effects, how life might use quantum theory, you say, "Well, why wouldn't it? It's so effective."

Paul Davies: Yes. Uh, uh, of course, as I mentioned earlier that if life [inaudible 00:48:52] it, it gains a 5% edge or a 10% edge. Of course, uh, that will be selected for. So, we come back to [00:49:00] the, the question, "Is quantum is simply sophisticated life discovering some interesting physics on the way?"

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: Or was quantum mechanics right there at the outset? In other words, was it the, the midwife, uh-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: ... of, of, of life, uh, right back at the beginning. Well, because we have no idea how non life turned into life, as I keep stressing ad nauseam, uh, it's impossible to know whether a quantum pathway, uh, from non life to life might uh, be the explanation. Uh, there's some attraction in thinking that because one of the things quantum mechanics can do is explore many possible pathways simultaneously.

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: Uh, and so I mention that an electron might bounce to the left, or it might bounce to the right. Uh, the way we like to describe that mathematically is that there are two possible worlds or pathways for the electron. In practice, there'll be an infinite number, and that, that all else being equal, if you [inaudible 00:49:56] perform any measurements, uh, all of these pathways are, are present [00:50:00] together and somehow contributing to the final answer. And so could it be that there is some quantum exploration of pathways, uh, to life, uh, from non life? I don't know. It's a, it's very [inaudible 00:50:13]. And it sort of makes it look like-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: ... um, that s- somehow quantum mechanics knows where it's going. It's trying to invent life. We don't want to introduce anything quite, uh, so blatant or so goal oriented as that. Uh, but l- looking at chemical pathways quantum mechanically can certainly, uh, change the numbers that come out. And, and it is a numbers game. Uh, the question we'd like to know is, "Given a mishmash of chemicals, uh, what is the probability that something living will emerge? And if that probability is enhanced by a factor of, you know, a thousand or a million, or a trillion, or something like that ... " Because with quantum effects, well, it may change our attitude to how likely this is.

Mat Kaplan: It certainly is intriguing. One of the many moments in the book left me [00:51:00] speechless was when you talked about these organisms, extremophiles as we have come to call them, who live near these vents at the bottom of the ocean that perform photosynthesis, and that they are amazingly efficient, that there are ... Some of these photosynthetic structures that can actually get benefit from a single photon.

Paul Davies: Right, right. So, it looks like photosynthesis, which uh, as I described ... And we think of plants is, is exploiting these quantum effects. But we have to look at the history, uh, of photosynthesis. It didn't start with plants. It started uh, deep down in the deep ocean volcanic vents, uh, billions of years ago. And so life probably began in that setting. And uh, there, there isn't much life down there. In fact, it's uh, there's no light from the sun penetrates to sorts of depths, t- talking kilometers. Uh, but there will be some, uh, infrared uh, radiation uh, from these hot, uh, surfaces and so on. And photosynthesis, uh, [00:52:00] almost certainly first to have evolved. Uh, that is uh ... When I say photosynthesis, I mean, using uh, the energy of photons to make biomass, which is what it amounts to. But mechanism might, original mechanism was probably very difficult. Uh, and of course, uh we, uh, can speculate that it was at that stage that life discovered a quantum advantage, uh, in that uh, deep dark, uh, hellhole as we-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: ... might think of it now, discovered that, uh, quantum mechanics could buy some advantage. In, in biology, you don't need much advantage for it to become selected for, uh, and that uh, then once you had the basis of a mechanism, turning photons into, into uh, biomass in some way or using it as a energy source for, uh, converting chemicals into biomass, once you've got that, then that, uh, basic principle can then spread to, uh, life on the surface as, as you know, it clearly has without having to rediscover it all over again. Uh, so uh, a lot of these [00:53:00] things go back a long, long way-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: ... uh, in time. Uh, we can uh, date the genes. We can uh, look at genes that drive this and get some idea of when these effects, uh, evolved. This is a very new field. It's call phylostratigraphy. It means we can take [inaudible 00:53:16] genes and [inaudible 00:53:17] something about uh, these a- uh, recent evolved genes, ancient genes. And we always had the impression that anything that is truly fundamental to the way life does business must be very ancient. You, you build the foundations bef- before you build the rest of the house. Uh, and this is a burgeoning field of phylostratigraphy. And it's very important for research as well as, uh, things like photosynthesis.

Mat Kaplan: Also, s- an area that you can explore in the book. I, I don't mean to imply that, uh, photosynthesis may have been around at the origin of life on Earth, but I-

Paul Davies: No [crosstalk 00:53:49].

Mat Kaplan: I, I, I do wonder what all of this may say to you about how we should be looking for the origin of life, not just here, but elsewhere.

Paul Davies: Of course, we have [00:54:00] no, uh, certainty that life began on Earth. It may have begun on Mars, for example, and come to Earth, an impact ejector. We know Earth and Mars trade rocks on a regular basis. And uh, organisms cocooned in those rocks can certainly make the journey and be viable at the other end. So, Mars cooled quicker. It was ready for life sooner.

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: So, it may have got going there and, uh, come here at a later stage. But of course, it doesn't, uh [crosstalk 00:54:25].

Mat Kaplan: That's just exporting the question.

Paul Davies: Yes.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: It doesn't explain how non life turned into life. We actually don't know the setting. There are a few, um, favorites out there. Some people like the deep ocean, uh, volcanic vent setting. Some people prefer, uh, ponds on the surface that go through cycles of wet and dry. Some people like, uh, droplets in the air. Some people wanna take it off the planet and, uh say, uh ... Put it in comets. Who knows? We, we absolutely don't know because we don't know what the, the process was. As we were discussing earlier, it might have been, uh, that quantum mechanics played a really important role, [00:55:00] but we're very far from establishing that. And experiments in the lab of which is, uh, university was a, you know, pioneer, blazed a trail of, "Can you cook up life in the lab by mixing stuff up, uh, that we think uh, represents the early Earth?" And uh, uh, sparking electricity through it to see what will happen? [crosstalk 00:55:18].

Mat Kaplan: [crosstalk 00:55:18] the Miller uh, Urey, uh, experiment, yes.

Paul Davies: [crosstalk 00:55:18] the famous Miller Urey experiments. Stanley Miller was, uh, here. That uh, gives you some simple building blocks. And there's a whole tradition of uh, chemists uh, g- uh, doing that, of, of trying to, uh, cook up more and more complex molecules. But the gulf between the, these sorts of building blocks molecules and the simplest living things like Craig Venter's Mycoplasma laboratorium as a, a slimmed down organism. But it's still immensely complex compared to a few of these building blocks. And that gulf is huge. And as I've [inaudible 00:55:55] to point out, I think it's focusing on the wrong problem. I think that life is ... It's not the stuff of [00:56:00] which its made. It's the software. It's the information processing. And that's where the, the transition from non life to life ... That, that's the one we have to understand, "How do molecules write code?" Computer code to, to put it bluntly.

It, it's like cells are really just, in many ways like, computers. They uh, store information. They uh, process it and they propagate it. And it's in code. It's encrypted. The genetic code is, uh, an encryption. It's one of, uh, countless possible mathematical codes that could be used. All moon life uses the same code. How did that code come to exist in the first place? How did these stupid molecules write anything as clever as the genetic code? We don't know. But that's a software problem, not a hardware problem.

Mat Kaplan: We can stop there, but I must take you just a bit deeper into speculation, and discuss life as we don't know it. For example, if there is some kind of or some level of quantum mechanical reliance uh, by life [00:57:00] and if quantum mechanical processes don't like heat, don't like the chaos that hear brings. What about someplace like Titan, the moon of Saturn, or even colder places, Pluto, which may liquid water someplace, but is a very cold environment. I, and ... Ignore liquid water because I did say life that is not like us.

Paul Davies: [crosstalk 00:57:24].

Mat Kaplan: Does this get your mind working at all?

Paul Davies: Uh, probably the craziest paper I ever published, which was in the Journal of Nature about 15 years ago, was on a quantum origin of life. Uh, and I wanted to go even colder, so I picked, uh, an interstellar grain uh-

Mat Kaplan: Ah.

Paul Davies: ... that might be rather close to the, uh, temperature of the cosmic microwave background, uh, about three degrees above absolute zero. Uh, if you, you wanna go cold, that's a pretty good place to do it. And conjectured by analogy with the computer again. [00:58:00] Uh, when you think about computer, the microchip is incredibly fast at processing information. It uh, really turns over at a, at a enormous uh, uh, an a uh, speed. But you turn off the power, and you lose that information. So, what do computers do? Well, they store it on ... It used to be a hard drive. It used to be literally a spinning disk. So, let's go with that analogy. Big, clunky, slow, but very robust information, the information that's stored there.

So, I had this idea that quantum life, if it could based on qua- quantum replication, variation, and selection, will be some um, condensed matter, physics system like a spin glass with uh, complexity there, but a replicative ability as well. I have no idea about the physics of that. You know, it soun-, all sounds impressive.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: I didn't, I didn't work it out. But you know, imagine something that was incredibly fast because it was essentially quantum mechanical-

Mat Kaplan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Paul Davies: ... information processing, cubits not, rather than bits, uh-

Mat Kaplan: [crosstalk 00:58:58].

Paul Davies: ... to use the jargon. Um, but uh, [00:59:00] hopelessly um, d- delicate uh, and unable to spread. Uh, but imagine that ut backed up that information in the equivalent of a hard disk. And what that hard disk would be is organic molecules-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: ... big, clunky, slow, but robust things.

Mat Kaplan: Mm.

Paul Davies: And then eventually, it's as if, you know, the hard disk says to the chip in a computer, "Uh, I've got enough to make a living on my own. Goodbye." And goes off and inherits the Earth.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: Uh, and so, uh, that was the that was the scenario, that the or- organic uh, backup, slow but reliable, would be the next generation of life. These little grains are probably still doing their thing out there, but we wouldn't know about them because they couldn't live on Earth 'cause it's too warm.

Mat Kaplan: Seeding the universe.

Paul Davies: Uh, yes. Yes. This is a crazy theory.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: But great fun.

Paul Davies: Well, my feeling is that his is such a problem, this uh, uh, uh, origin of life uh, that we need to just [01:00:00] think outside the box. We need new concepts. So, it's not enough to just think, "Well, we've got a rough idea. You got this molecule or that molecule?" Or, "Will it make more of this? And is it more efficient than making that?" Well, that's locked into a particular way of thinking, which uh ... Fine, you know, if people want to do that. But I think I, I'm sort of bored with that narrative. I, we just need to think, "If life is really about software and not hardware, not the stuff. It's about the, uh, information patterns." Well, as you know, again, with a computer, you can copy a, a file from a computer onto a flash drive. And then you can send it down optical fiber and so on. The medium, the instantiation of that information is irrelevant. The pattern-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: ... is uh, it transcends that. And if you think of life as really being about copying patterns of information and not so much about copying the stuff, then we don't need all this complicated, replicated machinery. So, in, in life as we know it, you copy the molecules. You [01:01:00] make new molecules. You make the ... It's like, you know, you're ... You, you wanna copy a file from your computer, you, you put it on a flash drive. You wouldn't think, "Well, let's make another hard drive-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Paul Davies: ... with a, you know, everything on it." I mean, it would just not, not be the way to do it. So, I think, um, trying to think in those terms or any other terms, uh, we, we just need new thinking-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Paul Davies: ... about this extraordinary thing that we call life.

Mat Kaplan: My strong impression is that you enjoy thinking about these things, topics like this, even more than the great enjoyment I have gotten out of this conversation or your book.

Paul Davies: It's true that I enjoy it. And I wouldn't write about it if I didn't think it enormous fun.

Mat Kaplan: Thank you, Paul. This has been delightful.

Paul Davies: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Mat Kaplan: The book is The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life by our guest, Paul Davies. It is from the University of Chicago Press. And uh, I could not recommend it more highly. Time for what's [01:02:00] up on Planetary Radio. Bruce Betts is the chief scientist of the Planetary Society. He is back to tell us about the night sky. And uh, we'll do some other stuff, like in the new contest, give away that copy of Paul Davies' book, The Demon in the Machine.

Bruce Betts: Planet party time again. The evening in the west, Venus dominating, looking like a super bright star. And then uh, on the 27th of February, the moon, the very crescenty moon will join, uh, Venus in the evening west. And then in predawn east, we've got Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, got Mars to the upper right, looking reddish. Jupiter, much brighter to the lower left. And then, uh, if you have a clear view to the horizon, you can pick up Saturn down below. We move onto This Week in Space History. It was 1965 that Ranger 8 impacted the moon on purpose, taking pictures-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Bruce Betts: ... and transmitting them back before it, uh, it did that. We'll come back to [01:03:00] Ranger.

Mat Kaplan: Ah.

Bruce Betts: And then, uh, 1994, the Clementine spacecraft entered lunar orbit.

Mat Kaplan: I don't wanna ruin any, uh, trivia questions, but was that the first Ranger to be successful? I know that there were a whole bunch that weren't.

Bruce Betts: Gosh, funny you'd ask. That makes this less of a random space fact.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Bruce Betts: [laughs] The Ranger program, uh, was a bunch of robotic spacecraft that were designed to get the highest resolution, at the time, pictures of the lunar surface as they were, uh, planning for landing humans. And they were impactors. So, they would just take pictures and transmit as they were headed down to crash. And indeed, the first six failed. According to uh, the internet, the program was called Shoot and Hope for a while.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Bruce Betts: Uh, that's embarrassing. And then uh, something changed and uh, JPL succeeded with Ranger 7, which successfully returned images [01:04:00] in July of 1964. And then there were a couple more successful missions as well. And they gave us, uh, closeup views of the moon as they slammed in, [laughs] or before they slammed into the moon.

Mat Kaplan: I was a, a, a very young kid. And I remember watching the live coverage. Uh, [laughs] since the pictures had to come back live ... I mean, you know, wasn't gonna be able to transmit them later, it was absolutely fascinating. And it was a such a big deal at the, at the time. I still remember it with a lot of excitement.

Bruce Betts: Cool. Well, then, you'll enjoy our trivia contest as well. But first, let's talk about the previous trivia contest, which is always interesting. I'm sure lots of people had it on the tip of their tongue when I asked, "What was Lyman Spitzer's middle name-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Bruce Betts: ... for whom the Spitzer space telescope was named?" How'd we do, Mat?

Mat Kaplan: First, this comment about the Spitzer space telescope, which of course, we, we just talked to those leaders of that great, uh, [laughs][01:05:00] uh, grand observatory, that great observatory in space, which has now been decommissioned. Benjamin [Mittus 01:05:07] down under, Australia, he said, "It's always sad to hear that space hardware has been decommissioned, but there is always something new and exciting to look forward to. Congratulations to all the team involved and what amazing work they produced."

Bruce Betts: That's for sure. What an amazing mission with so many, uh, great, great results.

Mat Kaplan: Here's the answer. In the form of our submission from the poet laureate, Dave Fairchild, in Kansas who also mentioned what a guy Spitzer was. I'll have more about that. Maybe you will too. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from, uh, Yale. Lyman Spitzer Senior had a son who shared his name, born in 1914, who would rise to great acclaim. Telescopes and asteroids, his moniker would share. Although, you'll rarely see the Strong part mentioned anywhere. [laughs].

Bruce Betts: [laughs]. Indeed. Strong, Lyman Strong [01:06:00] Spitzer Junior.

Mat Kaplan: Then congratulations go to first time winner, longtime listener, Joel [Lechter 01:06:06] in, uh, Quebec. You have won yourself a copy of Spitzer project scientist, Michael Werner's new book, More Things in the Heavens: How Infrared Astronomy Is Expanding Our View of the Universe, and a Planetary Radio tee shirt.

Bruce Betts: Yay.

Mat Kaplan: Mark Smith i- [laughs] in San Diego, he said he was hoping that the middle name would be Alpha Lyman, Alpha [crosstalk 01:06:34].

Bruce Betts: [laughs] Astronomy joke. [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, astronomers around the world are, are rolling on the floor right now just, just like Bruce. Uh, he says [laughs]-

Bruce Betts: [crosstalk 01:06:42].

Mat Kaplan: ... unfortunately, it is Strong. [laughs] There it is. I knew it. Darren [Ritchie 01:06:46] in Washington state, fascinated to discover that among many of things he invented, the stellarator, now enjoying new popularity in fusin- fusion research. That was back in the '50s. I also discovered that he helped develop sonar. [01:07:00] Darren went onto say, "He made the first ascent of Mount Thor in arctic Canada, which features Earth's tallest vertical cliff face. What a life."

Bruce Betts: Wow.

Mat Kaplan: Daniel [Huckabee 01:07:12] in Nevada, Planetary Society member and avid listener, here he says, "Not only was the Spitzer space telescope named after him. He actually came up with the idea to put telescopes in space Now, that is a strong idea." And that's true. I, I read up of this too. He wrote about the advantages of a space telescope in 1946. He later oversaw the creation of OAO or Orbiting A- Astronomical Observatory 3, the first one that really worked well apparently. With that in mind, this closing poem from Eugene [Lewen 01:07:44] Washington state, "With foresight and support of peers, developed OAO in the early years, leading to the four great observatories, Chandra, Compton, and the first, HST. The fourth with vision just as long, named for Professor [01:08:00] Spitzer Lyman Strong."

Bruce Betts: [laughs]

Mat Kaplan: [laughs]. I wanna get that as a wristband, Lyman Strong.

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Bruce Betts: But the only way to really see it is to s- look in the infrared. [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [laughs] Yeah, that's even better. I love it. I love it. An infrared one. We'll, we'll talk to our contacts about that. Now, we're ready to go onto your, your what? Ranger related new question?

Bruce Betts: Ranger related new question, what Ranger mission imaged Mare Tranquillitatis, or the Sea of Tranquility, the place that of course, later would be the first place humans stepped onto Mars [laughs] or the moon. Take your pick.

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Bruce Betts: What Ranger mission [laughs] imaged Mare Tranquillitatis, or however you pronounce it. I, I'm sorry to all the Latins in the crowd. Um-

Mat Kaplan: [laughs].

Bruce Betts: Go to

Mat Kaplan: Got till the 26th ... That's February 26th at 8:00 AM Pacific time, to get us this one. [01:09:00] And if you win, you will a copy of Paul Davies', The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life, and a Planetary Society rubber ... I didn't do that very well, rubber asteroid.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody. Go out there [inaudible 01:09:18] the night sky, think about your favorite word that begins with the letter X. Shouldn't take long, although, if you've got other languages, maybe ... Thank you. Goodnight.

Mat Kaplan: If I had a xylophone, I would use it like the old NBC tones [singing]. I was have the, uh, uh, a, a series of tones like that for Planetary Radio. So, I'm gonna say xylophone.

Bruce Betts: Cool. We should get you a xylophone.

Mat Kaplan: It only needs three, it only needs three notes [laughs].

Bruce Betts: It'll be cheaper that way.

Mat Kaplan: He's Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of the Planetary Society. He joins us every week for what's up. Planetary Radio is produced by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its well [01:10:00] informed members. Will you join us a Mark Hilverda is our associate producer. Josh [Doyle 01:10:08] composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Ad astra.

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