Scientists don't know how life on earth got its start, but they have ideas. The most popular to date is that a bolt of lightning or other power boost energized a soup containing all the necessary chemicals to get things going. But now a young MIT physicist has a different idea, based on the second law of thermodynamics.
From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.
The reaction from other scientists is what you'd expect -interest, ranging from excited to skeptical, with a "wait and see" attitude. The next step is to run experiments to see how the theory stands up. Rather complicated experiments, I would guess. Read more about England and his ideas at Quanta magazine. -via Digg
(Image credit: Katherine Taylor for Quanta Magazine)