IAS Fellows' Seminar - Towards a physics of death: learning from nature's circular economy
Physicists interested in biological world have long noticed that living organisms are constructed by a process of ‘self-assembly’. Crudely, evolution has generated molecular ‘Lego blocks’ that contain within themselves the instructions for putting themselves together into higher-order superstructures. Originating in viral biology in the 1960s, the concept of ‘self-assembly’ has spawned its own research field, nowadays a branch of so-called ‘soft matter’ science. While many self-assembly scientists want to create materials that have nothing to do with biology, the subject remains bio-mimetic as well as bio-inspired, with many harbouring the distant dream of (re)creating life itself. Professor Wilson Poon argues the biomimetic research paradigm of 'self-assembly’ will never reach its goal of mimesis, because half of the science is missing. At all levels in the biosphere, from single molecules inside cells through tissues to whole ecosystems, self-assembly is tightly coupled to highly-honed processes of 'dissipative self-disassembly'. Evolution has tuned living things to spend energy to take itself apart on all levels in a highly-organised way. The process of ‘cell suicide’ - programmed cell death - is a well-known, and visually spectacular, example. But the common process of fungi and bacteria decomposing dead organisms to supply the nutrients needed by whole eco-systems (think of a rain forest, for example) is also a matter of living systems dissipating energy to take themselves apart in order to couple back to self-assembly. In contemporary parlance, nature has invented the ‘circular economy’ long before we thought of it! In this seminar, Professor Poon will introduce the concept of dissipative self-disassembly, give a number of biological examples, and argue that we need a paradigm shift to incorporate such processes into thinking about life (and death!), and suggest how such thinking will have wider societal impact.
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