What is Life?

I’ve decided the best place to start this blog on explaining science, is to do a series of posts on something that’s a important to everyone, and is

probably one of the most important aspects of science, I’m going to base the next few posts on Life.

The series will most likely include:

– Some stuff on cells and what we are all made of.

– DNA and the ‘code of life’ (or how we create life).

– This might be controversial to some people but I think it’s pretty important: evolution.

– Thoughts on consciousness and various theories on how we think and the existence of free will.

– As an afterthought I could do a small exploration into the universe and how it supports life, as well as whether there is life outside of this planet (or solar system).

If anyone at any point comes up with other suggestions feel free to comment on the blog and I’ll see if I can get to it!

Leave a comment


  1. Simply trying to define “life” could be the subject of its own series of blog posts, being an issue that’s hotly debated.

    Well I say hotly debated. More annoyingly confusing, preventing people from coming up with satisfactory definitions.

    • You’re right, it’s a massive topic and it can be confusing. But it’s important and a lot of science will rely on some understanding of how Life’s basic principles work. So that’s what I want to explain, the basic principles. I’ll get to the more complex stuff after that (consciousness etc.) but in the mean time I’m going to try make it as easy as I can!

      The first few posts should be out over the next week so we will see how it goes.

      • An interesting approach. I’m normally tempted to just define everything as I come to it rather than laying such a framework. Perhaps your method will work better and a subscription will be warranted. I will be watching this space.

        No pressure 😉

  2. Rather belated, this comment – but ‘hello’ and many thanks for alerting me to your existence with your comment on my blog posting of a couple of days ago: (http://apostatescientist.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/day-236-the-brain-and-its-scientist/.)

    I promise a reply to that comment, but I’m going to work up to it slowly and carefully by going through each of your postings, with this one as the start. Hopefully you’ll bear with me if I say that I think what you’re doing in communicating the scientific worldview by building it from the bottom up is incredibly valuable and important – because that is one of the great values of the scientific worldview – you can build it from the bottom up!

    You’ll gather from my ‘apostate scientist’ moniker that I have some questions and criticisms about the way scientists think about science. But that doesn’t mean I don’t support the practice of science. In fact, I would question whether any truly valid criticism of science (as opposed to expressions of personal preference, prejudice or opinion) can come from anyone who does not fully understand the brilliant, internallly-consistent, evidence-based structure of thought and consciousness that science is – and appreciate the wonders that structure can reveal.

    Anyway, from the off, ‘What is life?”. In the last year of my BSc in biochemistry I did a project on the history of scientific ideas about the origin of life – which caused me to think fairly hard about what life actually was. I reckoned any kind of reproduction-based definition was going to be inadequate – I may never see a tiger reproduce but when it’s coming for me with its mouth open, I sure as hell know it’s alive. In the end I opted for ‘A living system is one that transduces chemical energy in such a way as to sustain its transduction of chemical energy’, which puts the emphasis on self-sustaining metabolism.

    As ever, viruses remain a bit murky according to that definition in that they co-opt other energy transduction systems into making more of themselves. But since they don’t actually transduce energy themselves I’d be more inclined to see them as a particularly sophisticated kind of prion, or suchlike.

    Looking forward to moving up your postings and seeing how you develop this.

    • Maybe you can cut the definition to some kind of ‘intelligent use of energy’ although then we would have to look for a new definition of ‘intelligent’.

      Thanks for the comment, it’s appreciated!!!

      I’ve had some trouble at the chemical level as I wasn’t too sure how far to take it (should I go into detail about bonding, all the different types of atoms, Mendeleev’s periodic table etc. So I feel there might be some missing there but i can always put in a late contribution.

      At some point I might send out some messages asking if anyone else wants to start taking part and adding their own expertise in (obviously I can only do so much). That way I can get the community of ‘ask us something (anything) and we’ll give you all the understanding you need’ going. But that’s a bit of a way off yet…

      Hope you enjoy reading!!

  3. Quick thought about your uncertainties over the periodic table.

    To my mind, the ordering of the elements and the history behind it is one of the most under-appreciated wonders of science there is. Trouble is, it’s under-appreciated because it is quite difficult to get one’s head around.

    Maybe the thing to do is indeed to do what you’re doing, which is to get the main landmarks in place. Then you can go back and dig deeper – and deeper. That’s going to be a challenge to your powers of creative communication, but I reckon it’s a challenge worth tackling and maybe opening things up to contributions from others could help.

    I’d really like to see an accessible take on the wonders of chemistry – Jim al-Khalili had a determined go at it on BBC4 a while back, but I’m not sure how good television is at getting across topics that depend as much on structures of thought as on spectacular appearances. The challenge would be to build up slowly, while still keeping people’s attention – worth thinking about.

    Not such a quick thought! – and I can’t resist another quick thought about life and intelligent use of energy. Is it our intelligence that we are projecting onto the self-sustaining and energetic appearances of life (which, in a neat and not necessarily intelligent circularity, appear to as as they do because they are self-sustaining) – or is the intelligence ‘out there’ – or is that a false distinction! – ‘nother one to think about.

    • That last paragraph confused me 😛 If your saying that we are projecting in a psychological sense, then yes most probably we are. We always tend to see more in things then we should. Any intelligent mechanism that uses energy wisely is just a result of random evolution. That’s why i suggested a reconsideration of the word intelligence in this use. So that it can be seen as intelligence in the respect that the energy is used to create an environment that it can be sustained. Thus the virus maintains an alive status as it uses energy so that it can be sustained, but that energy is not necessarily always its own.

      And yep! I enjoyed that programme, although not many other people I know watched it (my girlfriend just got a book out when i turned it on). I think Science on TV is doing a pretty good job, but not enough people are attracted to watch it in the first place. Except Brian Cox.

      Anyway I reckon I could do a post on the periodic table, or you could if you wanted! But as you say I’m trying to shove all the basics in first before I start to venture into a less structured method, and more specialised topics (I’m ignoring that for neuroscience though… I love it too much!)


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