One appealing story about the origin of life is that it is a kind of non-equilibrium phase transition. Non-equilibrium phase transitions include the onset of convection and dielectric breakdown, among other examples. Qualitatively speaking, they involve the formation of macroscopic order in response to an energy gradient, often resulting in a faster rate of dissipation.
If we take seriously the idea that such phenomena are relevant for the origin of life then what kind of phase transition should we be looking for, and what would we need to do to observe it in simulation or in an experiment? I will talk about my past, ongoing and future work in this direction. I show using simple models that phase transitions can lead to the emergence of autocatalysis and can result in a primitive form of ‘response to selection’, even in the absence of template replication. I will argue that the more interesting kinds of phase transitions might be more common in ‘slow’ chemistry (e.g. at low temperatures), and I will explore various different kinds of phase transition that might form relevant steps along the transition from non-life to life, including the emergence of specificity and the emergence of self-reference.
One goal in presenting this work is to stimulate discussions about how such phenomena could be observed experimentally, as well as with future modelling and theoretical work.
Speaker: Dr. Nathaniel Virgo, ELSI
Date: Wed. 11 Oct. 16:00-17:00 JST