Archives for posts with tag: Life

There’s a lot of dry wood in the forests around us. It stays there for a while. Only from time to time something happens that starts a fire.

Fill a room with a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen – at ‘room temperature’, and nothing happens. Strike a match and… you get a big noise and a little water. Don’t try this at home, you won’t live to tell the story. The noise is really big.

White phosphorus has to be kept under water. Whenever it gets in contact with humid air at a temperature above 30 degrees Celsius it starts to burn. And it cannot be extinguished in any other way than by submerging the whole thing under water.

Put a TNT stick (make sure it isn’t dynamite) into fire and it will simply burn. Fuse it properly and it will detonate whenever you ‘tell’ it to.

Let’s consider life now.

All the chemical elements, and a huge number of the organic molecules, which are the building blocks of any living organism have been around for eons while ‘life’ is a relatively recent occurrence.

Males and females – both animals and plants, roam around freely. Yet no offspring appears before something happens between a male and a female. This – the need for something to occur outside the individual organism, is valid also for bacteria – they need certain conditions to multiply, and viruses – which need the assistance of other, suitable, organisms.

Whenever conditions are right enough, sooner or later ‘life’ will surely appear. Or so it has happened all over our Earth. Till now, at least.

Whenever a living organism follows it’s normal set of instructions – its DNA remains fully functional, everything goes ‘as advertised’. If, by any reason, enough DNA is damaged beyond repair, the hell breaks loose. Being diagnosed with Cancer is enough to blow up even the most stable mind.

I’ve kept the most striking similitude for the last.
Both combustion and life continue only as long as certain conditions are met. Both need enough oxygen and fuel/nutrition.

There are also two big differences between them. One regarding ‘time’ – the successions of ‘moves’ which constitute the processes, and the other regarding ‘space’.

Combustion follows a set of pre-existing rules.  The chemical composition of the combustible might change the ignition temperature but that’s all it can do. Or it may add – as it’s the case for explosives, the possibility of detonation. But, again, both combustion and detonation follow a set of rules which are valid ‘across the board’. For all combustible and explosive substances.

On it’s turn, life follows two broad sets of rules. It has to obey all those which govern chemistry and physics – read combustion and detonation, and, on top of that, it has it’s own set of detailed instructions. Which vary from species to species.

I’ve left for the end the difference regarding ‘space’ because this one is very simple.

‘Combustion’ will extend all over the place where combustible is ‘continuous’, in a single ‘event’, while ‘life’ is, by definition, about finite organisms which multiply to make ‘good use’ of the available resources.
This being the reason for which combustion stops whenever the combustible available in an enclosed place is exhausted while life can resist a certain period of ‘famine’.

Advertisements

Things consist of what makes them what they are.
These very constituents impose upon things their definitive limits.

Take life, for instance. It’s exactly that which makes the difference between a collection of inanimate chemical substances and a living organism which leads to its eventual demise.

Or our skeletons. And all our organs. They make us what we are and, simultaneously, set the limits of our existence.
Each of us can grow only that high, eat and drink only that much, sprint only that fast and live only that long.

Take our brains.
That’s what we think with. And we make errors with.
That we remember and forget with.
That we love and hate with.
That makes us aware of some things and leave so many others out of our knowledge.

That is capable to understand the nature of our limits and, too often, chooses to ignore that opportunity.

Every thing we may find around us can be stashed in one of these three categories.

Only the boundaries between them are not so clear as it may seem at first glance.

”Aphasic” means ‘being unable to speak, even though your ‘throat’ and your intelligence seem to be OK. By stretching the term, one can use it to describe the inability to get in sync with the ‘exterior’. To react other than in a purely ‘mechanical’ manner. Push back with an equal force, sneeze when inhaling an allergen… you get my drift.

‘Alive’ is, at least apparently, a little simpler.
There are many definitions for ‘life’ but none is considered ‘good enough’. Yet all of us are convinced they know what ‘alive’ means.
In my view, life is a multi-generational affair. For starters, Darwin’s ‘seminal’ book was “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life”. ‘Species’ and ‘Races’ mean genetic information transmitted over many generations. The transmission mechanism being accurate enough to preserve the species as long as nothing happens yet flexible enough to allow for evolution to proceed when the prevailing conditions allow/demand it.

‘Alert’ is even simpler.
Quick to see, understand, and act in a particular situation“.

As I mentioned earlier, these categories only seem clear cut.

While it’s obvious that a boulder, or even a fully functional gas engine, can be safely tucked away into the ‘aphasic’ drawer, what are we going to do with somebody suffering with senile dementia? And, for good measure, well past the ‘reproductive age’…. Can that person be considered alive? Truly alive?
What about the ‘brain dead’ – literally, those who cannot do anything by themselves, but who are young enough and otherwise able to procreate?
Furthermore, it is very easy to say ‘that kid is very alert’ when describing a ‘tomboy’. Or a trader dealing on the New York Stock Exchange Floor. But can we use the same concept when describing the fly which has successfully evaded all our attempts to catch it?

%d bloggers like this: