What Life is

| 29th January 2016
'I shall show you Life in a handful of jewels'. A cut gemstone of Blue Apatite. Photo: Captain Tenneal via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
'I shall show you Life in a handful of jewels'. A cut gemstone of Blue Apatite. Photo: Captain Tenneal via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
The origin of life has long been the deepest of mysteries, writes Chris Busby. But in fact, the spontaneous arising of life from molecules in Darwin's 'warm little pond' is the inevitable result of their selective energisation by quantized infra-red radiation. Now, some four billion years after life first developed, precisely the same processes continue to drive the operation of all living systems at a cellular level.
Here is the kiss of life. At the bottom of Darwin's pond I place a primordial mineral, apatite, a phosphate mineral of startling beauty, bluish green. It absorbs sunlight, gets hot, and emits infrared radiation at one specific frequency.

The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy related the story of a giant computer Deep Thought built to answer the question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.

Concerning the first of this triad I believe, after 45 years of my own deep thought, I have figured out the answer and put it in a new book. It is not 42. If I am correct this will drop a large rock into the pond of science.

From the time I began (aged about 11 in Africa) looking round and questioning the world and my place in it I have wanted answers to the big questions. Haven't you? Hasn't everyone?

Why do we die? How are we alive? What does it mean: alive? When we see the colours and movement, the delight and sparkle, the beauty, suddenness, danger and force of nature, the extraordinary variety and impact of all the life that surrounds us, we stand amazed, breathless and silent.

What is life? How could this astonishing kaleidoscope of energy, and directed order have started from a jumble of cold dead molecules in a hostile, enigmatic and freezing Universe? How?

Look in the microscope and see Ms Amoeba about her unicellular, joyful and deadly business. Does she think? What does it mean: Think? What's going on there? This question of life's origin has been perhaps the most asked in the history of thought.

It is almost a religious question: indeed the failure of Science to answer it is still the feste berg of the Creationists. I propose to provide the solution to the enigma.

The cold dead universe

Erwin Schrödinger, the author of the wave mechanical version of quantum theory, for which he got the Nobel prize in Physics (and of cat fame), also thought about the problem. In his 1952 book (of the same title) he wrote:

"The structure of the vital parts of living organisms differ entirely from that of any piece of matter which physicists have ever handled."

He explained why. All the constituents of the Universe, everything that happens which physicists have studied, runs downhill in an energy sense because of what is called entropy. Entropy is a thermodynamic measure of the statistical probability of a system: more easily understood as the 'order' or the opposite, chaos, in any natural assembly of things, atoms, molecules, particles, rocks etc.

All spontaneous processes increase the entropy of participating bodies; the system becomes more chaotic and less ordered. But life is different; that is Schrödinger's point. Entropy is a very real quality and it can be measured. To create order from chaos, energy has to be added to the system. For a closed system it has to be added from the surroundings.

But the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the sum of the entropies of the participating bodies in a closed thermodynamic system always increases. In an idealized limiting case of a reversible process, the sum of entropies remains unchanged. Thus, for example, you cannot heat up a warm body by putting a cold body next to it.

But life does exactly that: it manages to pump entropy uphill. It takes energy from its environment (as food in animals or in photosynthesis in plants) and remains warmer than its environment, replicates and generally beetles about doing things. Physical matter does not. Warm objects cool down to their background temperature. Ordered matter becomes disordered.

I used to hatch ducklings in a home-made incubator when I lived in Machynlleth. It occurred to me to compare a dead duckling with a living one. Both have the same molecular structure, the same organs, are identical. But at the point of death, one just cools down to the air temperature, the other one squeaks and runs about pecking corn. What's going on there?

Well Schrödinger copped out. He ascribed the life effect to an aperiodic crystal in the chromosome, what was later found to be DNA. Of course, biology can explain life once it has started and arranged its cells. The problem is that at some point it had to start from 'dead' molecules.

As Martin Olumucki wrote in The Chemistry of Life, the paradox is "that living organisms are composed of inanimate molecules. Must we then say that 'life' is the interaction of all the inanimate components of this whole? That nothing is alive in the cell except the whole of it?"

Thermodynamics and quantum energy selection

The way out of this impasse came to me towards the end of a long search for a mechanism for life which began in 1971 when I was at Wellcome in Beckenham. I was the Physical Chemist on a team designing drugs.

The then, and also current idea is that drug molecules exert their effect by binding at 'receptors' on the cell surface, a kind of lock and key concept. But I noted that chemically, all the various drug molecules which switch on the receptor have totally different chemical structures and identities. The chemical basis for the receptor theory is clearly wrong.

One of my areas of research was spectroscopy: the analysis of molecular structure using various kinds of light, ultraviolet, visible, infrared, radiofrequency. I finally decided that cells didn't work primarily by chemistry at all. Chemistry created the components of the cell, but the real business was conducted by electromagnetic radiation exchanges in the infrared region.

This was in 1974. I left Wellcome and ran away to live on boats, my boat period. By 1982 I was in the Welsh mountains, that home of the poor escapees, and there in my mountain period, I built a laboratory in a garage and started to build electronic devices to measure these infrared exchanges. The idea, which I termed 'molecular communication' worked.

Atoms join together to make molecules. The bond which joins the atoms together in a molecule can be thought of as a spring. All the time (except at absolute zero) the atoms vibrate at the frequency of the spring force and give off and receive infrared electromagnetic radiation, heat radiation. Each bond has a characteristic frequency and wavelength, like a musical note, though the frequency is very high.

Spectroscopists use wavenumber or cm-1 (the reciprocal of wavelength) to measure these frequencies; these vibrations are all in the infra-red region of the electromagnetic spectrum between 3500cm-1 (wavelength 3.8 micrometers or micron (μ) to about 200cm-1 (50 μ) To the high end we have visible light, to the lower frequency we have microwaves and then radio waves.

The Universe is jolly cold. The zero temperature, 0 Kelvin (K), is -273 Celsius. The average temperature of the Universe is, as derived from measurements of background microwave radiation, one-hundredth of that: 2.73K. Life exists between about 10 degrees and 40 degrees Celsius - 283K-313K - which is quite hot in comparison.

The infra-red spectrum is the signature of life

In terms of statistical energy this temperature range loved by life is associated with the infra-red. I believe that this is how living cells operate: by switching these electromagnetic energies between components of the cell, and indeed between cells.

We know that cells communicate with each other and make communities. It is these communities that save you from cancer when some cells go mad as a result of genetic damage. The community shuts down the rogues (though, unhappily not always).

The basis of this energy exchange mechanism is that the vibrational frequencies, the pure notes, can only exchange with molecules that have the same pure frequency. Those that do not, are invisible at that frequency, they cannot absorb it.

There is an alphabet of frequencies which can run the cell defined by the 23 amino acids, which is like an orchestra, and life in the cell is a complex multi-layered superposition of the harmonies of the actors, the chemical musicians in the cell, all singing to each other. It is the infra-red emission and absorption of the drug that is the key component in its effect, not its chemical structure.

There is proof of this in the ideas and experiments of Luca Turin. Turin was interested in what it is that defines scent. What makes cyanide smell of almonds, what makes esters smell fruity? He is a perfume chemist and like I did with the histamine drugs, he did with substances that had the same scent.

He came to the same conclusion, rejected the receptor concept and decided that it was the infra-red spectrum that defined the type of smell. He has carried out a number of very clever experiments that prove this.

But the best was when he took the compound acetophenone, which smells of flowers and mainly absorbs at about 1700cm-1. He chemically exchanged all the hydrogens with the heavy hydrogen, deuterium. This brought the characteristic carbon hydrogen stretch vibrational frequency down to the same frequency of cyanide at 2250cm-1.

The new molecule, with the identical chemical structure, now smelled of almonds, as does cyanide. Read all about it in his fascinating volume The Secret of Scent.

The spontaneous origin of life, in sunlit ponds

It was only at the end of this description of how life works at the cell level that I began to think about how it began. The key is thermodynamics. If the simple characters, amoeba, the bacteria, can do this, there must have been a point where dead molecules became alive.

The general process (once the machine has been started) is clear. We can do Bacteria to Busby using Darwin. But Molecules to Bacteria is harder; how to start? Charles Darwin wrote (Letter to J. D. Hooker, 1st February 1871)

"It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present.- But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,-light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter wd be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed."

Since then, in the 1950s experiments with such prebiotic soups have shown that most of the molecular bases of life can be synthesised. But they are all dead molecules. The idea that they will assemble themselves into a viable replicating cellular creature defies statistical reason.

So the life-explainers have hit the thermodynamic brick wall and remain there. But here is the kiss of life. At the bottom of Darwin's pond I place a primordial mineral, apatite, a phosphate mineral of startling beauty, bluish green found also on the moon (see photo). It absorbs sunlight and gets hot.

When hot it emits infrared radiation at one specific frequency, around 1000cm-1 the phosphorus-oxygen stretch. Thus is converts solar radiation to specific infrared; one note, if you like, a trumpet call to waken life (see below).

Any molecule in the pond that has this 1000cm-1 note, the phosphate bond absorption in it (including soluble phosphate and polyphosphate ions) will instantly absorb the infra-red, get hot and acquire excess energy. All molecules that do not have this absorption will not, will remain at the background temperature. They remain dead.

The hot (living) molecules will then react with some cold molecules (their environment); they will eat their environment and grow. They will create a range of new bigger and bigger molecules which all have the PO4 absorption (or other bonds with the same absorption).

When the hot molecule gets too big, it will break into two at a weak point. It has replicated. Billions of different hot (alive) molecules will be formed over aeons of chemical reactions. Enter Darwin: the most effective absorbers of energy will survive in a molecular natural selection process. Their life process is sustained by direct absorption of infrared, just like the plants absorb sunlight.

Phosphate is the origin of life. We fast forward and find all the key components of life are phosphates. The DNA and RNA backbones, the Adenosine Triphosphate energy systems, the cell membrane itself, a long chain phospholipid.

The implications

The ideas are amenable to experiment. There are enormous implications for medicine, for cancer cures, for drug design (as Turin has used in designing scent molecules). Imagine: if cells function by electromagnetic signalling they can be analysed and perturbed by effectively shining light at them.

We might shut down cancer cells selectively with a simple infrared beam at the correct set of frequencies. I discuss all this in the book, and possible dangers too. But what concerns me most is the state of science, and how it hasn't cottoned on to this explanation.

Turin was laughed at. I can see that I will also be laughed at. I presented this idea in Merton College Oxford at a meeting of the 'Physics of Life' group on 6th and 7th January this year. The group is funded by the research councils and writes: "The central goal of the network has been to identify the central challenges that must be addressed if we are to understand the physics of life."

But when I arrived there it was bizarre; it was as if I were some character in Kafka story. My ideas were totally blanked, my contribution to the workshops ignored. No one would speak to me about the idea.

And when I asked the organiser, one Prof Jamie Hobb, who had started by castigating me for the brazen use of his conference to sell my non-peer reviewed book (it was peer reviewed but he never asked), I was told there was no space for me to present my ideas. No one even argued with the idea; I was a ghost.

All rather sad for me perhaps (though the food at Merton College is tremendous). But much sadder to see 'science in action' on the ground.

Paul Feyerabend

Science has lost its way. Over the last 100 years this philosophical method has become solidified in the amber of its precious theories and their experimental support.

It has thrown out beauty and sophisticated complexity as irrelevant or too complex to consider, to be boiled down to some primitive essence that can be manipulated mathematically by the bishops, the theoretical physicists.

Worse: it has become an Industry, influenced by business, and with an organisation and hierarchy not dissimilar to the Church it has replaced. Feyerabend took issue with this in 1983, in his book Against Method.

He said that if you take all the sets of empirical observations, the machinery of scientific advance chooses its favourite interpretations to create the explanations it favours. But it never occurs that these may not be the correct interpretations.

The resulting picture is crystallized in books, scientific papers, and fixed through the control of those who become famous on the back of the chosen interpretations. There can be no progress but the predefined path. All data is viewed through the prism of accepted theory.

It is worse: no experiments are carried out (or funded) because all is known; even when (in the case of my favourite absurdity, radiation and health) it is clear that the theory is wildly wrong and people are dying. Feyerabend attacked science for its rationality, advocating looking in unlikely places for inspiration.

He took issue with the philosophers of science, Popper and Kuhn, and he wrote that major developments come out of the blue and do not result from 'scientific method'. The only scientific method there was, he wrote, was "anything goes".

Deep Thought ... for me, a lifetime's worth

If I am right, it is a Big Deal. It is what Deep Thought was trying to figure out. It was what (extraordinarily) Erwin Schrödinger himself missed.

However, following Feyerabend's admonition, we could look back and get a clue from John Dryden. Handel's Ode for St Cecilia's day, (Dryden's 1687 poem) turns out to be pretty accurate:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
this universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
of jarring atoms laid.
A tuneful voice was heard on high.
Arise, ye more than Dead.
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap!
And music's power obey!
And music's power obey!



The book: Christopher Busby (2015) 'What is Life? On the origin and mechanism of living systems'. QTP Publications. Illustrated by Saoirse Morgan. ISBN 978-0-9565132-1-2, 130pp. Order from Amazon UK (£10.00) or QTP publications 10 Bratwell Rd, Coleraine, BT51 4LB.

Chris Busby is an expert on the health effects of ionizing radiation. He qualified in Chemical Physics at the Universities of London and Kent, and worked on the molecular physical chemistry of living cells for the Wellcome Foundation. Professor Busby is the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk based in Brussels and has edited many of its publications since its founding in 1998. He has held a number of honorary University positions, including Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Health of the University of Ulster. Busby currently lives in Riga, Latvia. See also: chrisbusbyexposed.org, greenaudit.org and llrc.org.