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“So, what ingredient was I missing?” Edmond asked. “Why did my primordial soup refuse to produce life? I had no idea–so I did what all successful scientists do. I asked somebody smarter than I am!”
A scholarly bespectacled woman appeared: Dr. Constance Gerhard, biochemist, Stanford University. “How can we create life?” The scientist laughed, shaking her head. “We can’t! That’s the point. When it comes to the process of creation–crossing that threshold where inanimate chemicals form living things–all of our science goes out the window. There is no mechanism in chemistry to explain how that happens. In fact, the very notion of cells organizing themselves into life-forms seems to be in direct conflict with the law of entropy!”
“Entropy,” Edmond repeated, now appearing on a beautiful beach. “Entropy is just a fancy way of saying: things fall apart. In scientific language, we say ‘an organized system inevitably deteriorates.'” He snapped his fingers and an intricate sand castle appeared at his feet. “I’ve just organized millions of sand grains into a castle. Let’s see how the universe feels about that.” Seconds later, a wave came in and washed away the castle. “Yup, the universe located my organized grains of sand and disorganized them, spreading them over the beach. This is entropy at work. Waves never crash onto beaches and deposit sand in the shape of a sand castle. Entropy dissolves structure. Sand castles never spontaneously appear in the universe, they only disappear.”
Edmond snapped his fingers again and reappeared in an elegant kitchen. “When you heat coffee,” he said, pulling a steaming cup from a microwave, “you focus heat energy into a mug. If you leave that mug on the counter for an hour, the heat dissipates into the room and spreads itself out evenly, like grains of sand on a beach. Entropy again. And the process is irreversible. No matter how long you wait, the universe will never magically reheat your coffee.” Edmond smiled. “Nor will it unscramble a broken egg or rebuild an eroded sand castle.”
Ambra recalled once seeing an art installation called Entropy–a line of old cement blocks, each more crumbled than the last, slowly disintegrating into a pile of rubble.
Dr. Gerhard, the spectacled scientist, reappeared. “We live in an entropic universe,” she said, “a world whose physical laws randomize, not organize. So the question is this: How can lifeless chemicals magically organize themselves into complex life-forms? I’ve never been a religious person, but I have to admit, the existence of life is the only scientific mystery that has ever persuaded me to consider the idea of a Creator.”
Edmond materialized, shaking his head. “I find it unnerving when smart people use the word ‘Creator’ …” He gave a good-natured shrug. “They do it, I know, because science simply has no good explanation for the beginnings of life. But trust me, if you’re looking for some kind of invisible force that creates order in a chaotic universe, there are far simpler answers than God.”
Edmond held out a paper plate on which splinters of iron filings had been scattered. He then produced a large magnet and held it beneath the plate. Instantly, the filings leaped into an organized arc, aligning perfectly with one another. “An invisible force just organized these filings. Was it God? No … it was electromagnetism.”
Edmond now appeared beside a large trampoline. On its taut surface were scattered hundreds of marbles. “A random mess of marbles,” he stated, “but if I do this …” He hoisted a bowling ball onto the trampoline’s rim and rolled it onto the elastic fabric. Its weight created a deep indentation, and immediately the scattered marbles raced into the depression, forming a circle around the bowling ball. “The organizing hand of God?” Edmond paused. “No, again … it was just gravity.”
He now appeared in close-up. “As it turns out, life is not the only example of the universe creating order. Nonliving molecules organize themselves all the time into complex structures.”
A montage of images materialized–a tornado vortex, a snowflake, a rippled riverbed, a quartz crystal, the rings of Saturn.
“As you can see, sometimes the universe does organize matter–which seems to be the exact opposite of entropy.” Edmond sighed. “So which is it? Does the universe prefer order? Or chaos?”
Edmond reappeared, now walking down a pathway toward the famed dome of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “According to most physicists, the answer is chaos. Entropy is indeed king, and the universe is constantly disintegrating toward disorder. Kind of a depressing message.” Edmond paused and turned with a grin. “But today I’ve come to meet the bright young physicist who believes there is a twist … a twist that may hold the key to how life began.”
Langdon was startled to recognize the name of the physicist Edmond was now describing. The thirtysomething MIT professor was currently the toast of Boston academia, having caused a global stir in a new field called quantum biology.
Coincidentally, Jeremy England and Robert Langdon shared the same prep school alma mater–Phillips Exeter Academy–and Langdon had first learned of the young physicist in the school’s alumni magazine, in an article titled “Dissipation-Driven Adaptive Organization.” Although Langdon had only skimmed the story and barely understood it, he recalled being intrigued to learn that his fellow “Exie” was both a brilliant physicist and also deeply religious–an Orthodox Jew.
Langdon began to understand why Edmond had been so interested in England’s work.
On-screen, another man appeared, identified as NYU physicist Alexander Grosberg. “Our big hope,” Grosberg said, “is that Jeremy England has identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life.”
Langdon sat up a bit straighter upon hearing that, as did Ambra.
Another face appeared. “If England can demonstrate his theory to be true,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson, “his name would be remembered forever. He could be the next Darwin.”
My God. Langdon had known Jeremy England was making waves, but this sounded more like tsunamis.
Carl Franck, a physicist from Cornell, added, “Every thirty years or so we experience these gigantic steps forward … and this might be it.”
A series of headlines flashed across the screen in rapid succession:
“MEET THE SCIENTIST WHO COULD DISPROVE GOD”
“THANKS, GOD–BUT WE DON’T NEED YOUR HELP ANYMORE”
The list of headlines continued, joined now by snippets from major scientific journals, all of which seemed to proclaim the same message: if Jeremy England could prove his new theory, the implications would be earth-shattering–not just for science but for religion as well.
Langdon eyed the final headline on the wall–from the online magazine Salon, January 3, 2015.
“GOD IS ON THE ROPES: THE BRILLIANT NEW SCIENCE THAT HAS CREATIONISTS AND THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT TERRIFIED.”
A Young MIT Professor Is Finishing Darwin’s Task–and Threatening to Undo Everything the Wacky Right Holds Dear.
The screen refreshed, and Edmond reappeared, striding purposefully along the hallway of a university science facility. “So what is this gigantic step forward that has so terrified Creationists?”
Edmond beamed as he paused outside a door marked: ENGLAND LAB@MITPHYSICS.
“Let’s go inside–and ask the man himself.”
THE YOUNG MAN who now appeared on Edmond’s display wall was physicist Jeremy England. He was tall and very thin, with an unkempt beard and a quietly bemused smile. He stood before a blackboard filled with mathematical equations.
“First,” England said, his tone friendly and unassuming, “let me just say that this theory is not proven, it’s just an idea.” He gave a modest shrug. “Although, I admit, if we can ever prove that it’s true, the implications are far-reaching.”
For the next three minutes, the physicist outlined his new idea, which–like most paradigm-altering concepts–was unexpectedly simple.
Jeremy England’s theory, if Langdon understood it correctly, was that the universe functioned with a singular directive. One goal.
To spread energy.
In the simplest terms, when the universe found areas of focused energy, it spread that energy out. The classic example, as Kirsch had mentioned, was the cup of hot coffee on the counter; it always cooled, dispersing its heat to the other molecules in the room in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Langdon suddenly understood why Edmond had asked him about the world’s Creation myths–all of which contained imagery of energy and light spreading out infinitely and illuminating the darkness.
England believed that there was a twist, however, which related to how the universe spread energy.
“We know the universe promotes entropy and disorder,” England said, “so we may be surprised to see so many examples of molecules organizing themselves.”
On the screen, several images that had appeared earlier now returned–a tornado vortex, a rippled riverbed, a snowflake.
“All of these,” England said, “are examples of ‘dissipative structures’– collections of molecules that have arranged themselves in structures that help a system disperse its energy more efficiently.”
England quickly illustrated how tornadoes were nature’s way of dispelling a concentrated area of high pressure by converting it into a rotational force that eventually exhausted itself. The same held true for rippled riverbeds, which intercepted the energy of fast-moving currents and dissipated it. Snowflakes dispersed the sun’s energy by forming multifaceted structures that reflected light chaotically outward in all directions.
“Simply stated,” England continued, “matter self-organizes in an effort to better disperse energy.” He smiled. “Nature–in an effort to promote disorder–creates little pockets of order. These pockets are structures that escalate the chaos of a system, and they thereby increase entropy.”
Langdon had never thought of it until now, but England was right; the examples were everywhere. Langdon pictured a thundercloud. When the cloud became organized by a static electric charge, the universe created a bolt of lightning. In other words, the laws of physics created mechanisms to disperse energy. The lightning bolt dissipated the cloud’s energy into the earth, spreading it out, thereby increasing the overall entropy of the system.
To efficiently create chaos, Langdon realized, requires some order.
Langdon wondered absently if nuclear bombs might be considered entropic tools–small pockets of carefully organized matter that served to create chaos. He flashed on the mathematical symbol for entropy and realized that it looked like an explosion or the Big Bang–an energetic dispersion in all directions.
“So where does this leave us?” England said. “What does entropy have to do with the origins of life?” He walked over to his chalkboard. “As it turns out, life is an exceptionally effective tool for dissipating energy.”
England drew an image of the sun radiating energy down onto a tree.
“A tree, for example, absorbs the intense energy of the sun, uses it to grow, and then emits infrared light–a much less focused form of energy. Photosynthesis is a very effective entropy machine. The concentrated energy of the sun is dissolved and weakened by the tree, resulting in an overall increase in the entropy of the universe. The same can be said for all living organisms–including humans–which consume organized matter as food, convert it to energy, and then dissipate energy back into the universe as heat. In general terms,” England concluded, “I believe life not only obeys the laws of physics, but that life began because of those laws.”
Langdon felt a thrill as he pondered the logic, which seemed quite straightforward: If blazing sunlight hit a patch of fertile dirt, the physical laws of the earth would create a plant to help dissipate that energy. If deep-ocean sulfur vents created areas of boiling water, life would materialize in those locations and disseminate the energy.
“It is my hope,” England added, “that one day we’ll find a way to prove that life indeed spontaneously emerged from lifeless matter … a result of nothing more than the laws of physics.”
Fascinating, Langdon mused. A clear scientific theory of how life might have self-generated … without the hand of God.
“I am a religious person,” England said, “and yet my faith, like my science, has always been a work in progress. I consider this theory agnostic on questions of spirituality. I am simply trying to describe the way things ‘are’ in the universe; I will leave the spiritual implications to the clerics and philosophers.”
Wise young man, Langdon thought. If ever his theory could be proven, it would have a bombshell effect on the world.
“For the moment,” England said, “everyone can relax. For obvious reasons, this is an extremely difficult theory to prove. My team and I have a few ideas for modeling dissipation-driven systems in the future, but at the moment, we’re still years away.”
England’s image faded, and Edmond reappeared on the screen, standing beside his quantum computer. “I, however, am not years away. This type of modeling is precisely what I’ve been working on.”
He walked toward his workstation. “If Professor England’s theory is correct, then the entire operating system of the cosmos could be summed up by a single overriding command: spread energy!”
Edmond sat down at his desk and began typing furiously on his oversized keyboard. The displays before him filled with alien-looking computer code. “I took several weeks and reprogrammed the entire experiment that had previously failed. I embedded into the system a fundamental goal–a raison d’etre; I told the system to dissipate energy at all costs. I urged the computer to be as creative as it could possibly be in its quest to increase entropy in the primordial soup. And I gave it permission to build whatever tools it thought it might need to accomplish that.”
Edmond stopped typing and spun around in his chair, facing his audience. “Then I ran the model, and something incredible happened. It turned out that I had successfully identified the ‘missing ingredient’ in my virtual primordial soup.”
Langdon and Ambra both stared intently at the display wall as the animated graphic of Edmond’s computer model began to play. Again, the visual plunged deep into the churning primordial soup, magnifying down to the subatomic realm, seeing the chemicals bouncing around, binding and rebinding with one another.
“As I fast-forwarded the process and simulated the passage of hundreds of years,” Edmond said, “I saw Miller-Urey’s amino acids taking shape.”
Langdon was not knowledgeable about chemistry, but he certainly recognized the on-screen image as a basic protein chain. As the process continued, he watched as increasingly complex molecules took shape, bonding into a kind of honeycombed chain of hexagons.
“Nucleotides!” Edmond shouted as the hexagons continued to fuse. “We’re watching the passage of thousands of years! And speeding ahead, we see the first faint hints of structure!”
As he spoke, one of the nucleotide chains began wrapping around itself and curling into a spiral. “See that?!” Edmond shouted. “Millions of years have passed, and the system is trying to build a structure! The system is trying to build a structure to dissipate its energy, just like England predicted!”
As the model progressed, Langdon was stunned to see the little spiral become a twin spiral, expanding its structure into the famous double-helix shape of the most famous chemical compound on earth.
“My God, Robert …,” Ambra whispered, wide-eyed. “Is that …”
“DNA,” Edmond announced, freezing the model midframe. “There it is. DNA–the basis for all life. The living code of biology. And why, you ask, would a system build DNA in an effort to dissipate energy? Well, because many hands make light work! A forest of trees diffuses more sunlight than a single tree. If you’re an entropy tool, the easiest way to do more work is to make copies of yourself.”
Edmond’s face appeared on-screen now. “As I ran this model forward, from this point on, I witnessed something absolutely magical … Darwinian evolution took off!”
He paused for several seconds. “And why wouldn’t it?” he continued. “Evolution is the way the universe continually tests and refines its tools. The most efficient tools survive and replicate themselves, improving constantly, becoming more and more complex and efficient. Eventually, some tools look like trees, and some look like, well … us.”
Edmond now appeared floating in the darkness of space with the blue orb of earth hovering behind him. “Where do we come from?” he asked. “The truth is–we come from nowhere … and from everywhere. We come from the same laws of physics that create life across the cosmos. We are not special. We exist with or without God. We are the inevitable result of entropy. Life is not the point of the universe. Life is simply what the universe creates and reproduces in order to dissipate energy.”
Langdon felt strangely uncertain, wondering if he had fully processed the implications of what Edmond was saying. Admittedly, this simulation would result in a massive paradigm shift and would certainly cause upheavals across many academic disciplines. But when it came to religion, he wondered whether Edmond would change people’s views. For centuries, most of the devout had looked past vast amounts of scientific data and rational logic in defense of their faith.
Ambra seemed to be struggling with her own reactions, her expression somewhere between wide-eyed wonder and guarded indecision.
“Friends,” Edmond said, “if you’ve followed what I’ve just shown you, then you understand its profound significance. And if you’re still uncertain, stay with me, because it turns out that this discovery has led to yet another revelation, one that is even more significant.”
“Where we come from … is not nearly as startling as where we are going.”
THE SOUND OF running footsteps echoed through the subterranean basilica as a Guardia agent sprinted toward the three men gathered in the deepest recesses of the church.
“Your Majesty,” he called out, breathless. “Edmond Kirsch … the video … is being broadcast.”
The king turned in his wheelchair, and Prince Julian spun around as well.
Valdespino gave a disheartened sigh. It was only a matter of time, he reminded himself. Still, his soul felt heavy to know that the world was now seeing the same video that he had seen in the Montserrat library with al-Fadl and Koves.
Where do we come from? Kirsch’s claim of a “Godless origin” was both arrogant and blasphemous; it would have a ruinous effect on the human desire to aspire to a higher ideal and emulate the God who created us in His image.