- Series: Investigations
- Paperback: 308 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (September 19, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195121058
- ISBN-13: 978-0195121056
- Product Dimensions: 9 x 0.8 x 5.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 29 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #892,682 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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How can you tell when a scientific theory is revolutionary?
As a rule, when a distinguished scientist says he's come up with a fourth law of thermodynamics, he's wrong. Stuart Kauffman may be the exception.
The three laws of thermodynamics have been summarized as: You can't win, You can't break even, and You can't get out of the game. Kauffman's candidate for fourth law is: But the game keeps getting more complicated, and there are always more different ways to play.
One of Kauffman's key concepts is that of the adjacent possible. Imagine a set of things that exist in a particular system (such as a group of reacting chemicals, or an ecological community, or the kinds of toys available in a capitalist economy). The adjacent possible is the set of things that are only one step away from actual existence. Like potential energy in physics, the adjacent possible is a metaphysical idea with real utility.
You can think of "normal science" (as described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) as proceeding step by step into the adjacent possible. Most self-styled revolutionary scientific treatises are really crackpottery. They don't stop in the adjacent possible; they go wandering across the landscape and over the speculative horizon. Investigations may be the real thing. Kauffman is pushing into the adjacent possible at many points, from biology, chemistry, thermodynamics, and economics. As he says, "whatever Investigations is--useful, as I hope, or foolish--it is not normal science." --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Scientific American
Kauffman's investigations concern nothing less than the nature of life. "It may be," he says, "that I have stumbled upon the proper definition of life itself." His deep and challenging argument runs as follows. Much of the order in living organisms is self-organized and spontaneous. "Self-organization mingles with natural selection in barely understood ways to yield the magnificence of our teeming biosphere. We must, therefore, expand evolutionary theory." The living organism, be it bacterial cell or human being, is a " 'propagating organization,' that is, that it literally constructs more of itself." This activity "has no statement in current physics or biology but constitutes that which constructs a bio- sphere." Kauffman, a founding member of the Santa Fe Institute, calls his actors autonomous agents and says we are on the verge of the capacity to create novel molecular autonomous agents. "When we do, or if we discover life on other planets and solar systems, science will enter a vast new phase in which we will create a 'general biology,' freed from the limitations of terrestrial biology."
EDITORS OF SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Throughout the book Mr. Kauffman tries to establish the foundations of what he calls a "general biology", meaning the laws that would govern life and evolving biospheres everywhere in our universe or maybe even in any universe. In science as we know it, we assume we can determine the space of configurations beforehand, whereas the author claims that in complex systems like biospheres this is impossible due to its non-ergodic (non repeatable) nature.
The investigations try to answer fundamental questions like the "origin of life". Life most probably did not occur as a spontaneous "replication of molds", like the auto-copying mechanism of DNA, which only appeared later. Instead, he proposes that life emerged out of a collective autocatalytic system in which molecule A catalyzes the production of molecule B out of B's fragments and B catalyzes the production of A out of its fragments. Now imagine this autocatalytic system but conformed of hundreds of proteins and peptides; the ever increasing molecular complexity achieved by way of recombinations of the existing molecules gives way to life as an "emergent collective behavior of complex chemical networks". Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution explains some of the bio-chemical concepts in an easier way.
The question "what is life?" is approached by introducing autonomous agents, which are defined as "autocatalytic systems able to reproduce themselves and to perform one or more cycles of thermodynamic work", he also defines them as "a physical system able to act selfishly". Here you will find the explanation of Carnot's work cycle in which a full work cycle can be completed automatically by a simple machine by way of a controlled release of energy. Then the system returns to the initial state in order be able to start another cycle. Autonomous agents complete work cycles for their own benefit in different ways, but mainly by way of chemical reactions (e.g. metabolical reactions) that release energy to perform recurrent work cycles. For other equally astonishing definitions of life read Tree of Knowledge and Life Itself: Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell.
Mr. Kauffman explains "Maxwell's demon" to measure a system's small deviations from equilibrium (equivalent to obtaining information from the system to take advantage of this deviations and obtain energy to produce work), thereby relating "information" to "entropy reduction". In later chapters the author proposes a new thermodynamic law, which could also account for "the arrow of time" (for a good explanation of the arrow of time read Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity). This "new law" states that instead of tending to equilibrium and arriving at a state of maximal entropy, our biosphere and probably the entire universe tend to the adjacent possible as quickly as they can, breaking more symmetries each time and remaining in a non-equilibrium state from which energy can be obtained by coupled systems and autonomous agents to perform work in an endless loop of complex reactions and cycles. For better explanations of statistical physics, power laws and thermodynamic concepts read also Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another and Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. This latter explains many of Mr. Kauffman's ideas - including evolution and co-evolution, adaptive surfaces, etc.- but in a clear, concise and well written manner. Chaos: Making a New Science is also a great introduction to the topic.
In some chapters the ideas seemed not fully formed and in my opinion are very close to speculation, specially the chapter where he tries to link Mr. Smolin's quantum gravity theories (alternative to the "superstring theory") with his idea of a fourth law of thermodynamics; not to mention a brief but completely unreadable appendix on consciousness (Spanish edition by Tusquets-Metatemas). I usually love when scientists get out of their area of knowledge and link concepts of other fields to their own expertise to form new hypothesis; but this time I think it went way too far.