Life As Information Exchange

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Seems to me there are two major lenses through which to look at life at the molecular level:

1) as Energy Flow, or

2) as Information Exchange.

I’ve posted on the Energy Flow side of things already.  Today, I’d like to talk about Life As Information Exchange.  According to Werner R. Loewenstein, author of The Touchstone Of Life, “Information flow, not Energy per se, is the prime mover of life.”

It sounds to me as if part of the purpose of Loewenstein’s book is to throw down the gauntlet in front of those who characterize Life as fundamentally a phenomenon of Energy flow.  Au contraire, says Loewenstein, “it’s not Energy that counts in biological systems, but Information.”  Life he says is not actually very efficient at creating usable Energy, but it’s aces at amassing information.

Personally, from the reading that I’ve done so far in this area, I would say that at the fundamental level of Life, the terms “Information” and “Energy” are almost interchangeable.  When Loewenstein says that “molecular Information flowing in circles brings forth the organization we can call ‘organism’ and maintains it against the ever-present disorganizing pressures in the physics universe,” we could just as easily take out the word “Information” and put in its place, “Energy.”  The same later when Loewenstein says, “the Information circle becomes the circle of life.”

One weirdness of Life is that it maintains a highly complex and tightly circular flow of Information compared to the rest of the Universe.  As Lowenstein says, “there nowhere seems to be so much information for a given outlay of space and time as there is in organisms.”

An organism has a tremendous amount of stuff going on inside, with most of it occurring at speeds I doubt the human mind can truly grasp.  With all the component parts that Life must marshal to keep doing its thing (there is some debate upon what, in the final analysis, “its thing” is), enormous amounts of directions are constantly zipping through the body, ordering the molecules to interact in very specific ways.

We can say, objectively, that Life is complex because of the amount of Information it requires to maintain its configuration.  Says Lowenstein:  “We compute the Information inherent in any given arrangement of matter (or Energy) from the number of choices we must make to arrive at that particular arrangement.”  The more choices made, the more complex the system.

When we come to talking about “choice”—be it in computer programming or in Life-programming— fundamental decisions become quite absolute:  the bottom-line choices boil down to “Yes” or “No,” Left or Right, On or Off:  the now-classic Binary Code.  I’ve always considered the fundamental Binary decision as a very Yin-Yang phenomenon; opposites working together.

When speaking of the Yes-No choice, aka Binary decisions, each Yes or No decision is known as a “Bit.”  Three decisions = three Bits.  For example, if there were three decisions made about whether to shade-in or not to shade-in each one of a set of three circles, O O O , then the system contains 3 Bits of information.

And since for each circle there were two possible choices to make (to shade or not to shade, that is the question), the system had the possibility of eight different outcomes, which we could represent in the following way (letting the asterisk stand for “shaded”):  OOO****OO,  O*O,  OO*,   **OO**,  or *O* .

The mathematical relationship –between the number of decisions made and the number of possible outcomes— works out the same for every system containing a set of binary decisions:  the number of possible outcomes is equal to:  2 to the nth power, where n= the number of decisions made.  Thus we can say that a system contains “2^n possible states.”

Not a computer programmer myself, I’m just beginning to catch a glimpse of the beauty of the Binary Code.  Take for example the simple three-Bit code, 001.  These three numbers tell us so much about the signified configuration…

1) we know by the number of digits, that there were three decisions made

2) we know by the number of decisions made, that there could have been eight different outcomes (2 to the 3rd power or 2^3 = 8)

3) we know from the order of the digits precisely which final outcome occurred.  For instance, in our example of three circles, if we allow 1 to equal “shaded,” then the three-Bit code tells us the final outcome after the three decisions have been made is:  O O * .

Another interesting “bit” of information Loewenstein brings up in his book is the contention that ALL the information exchange between molecules is done via the Electro-Magnetic Force.

This was a little hard for me to get my head around since I think of most cellular and subcellular interactions in the body as being done chemically.  Nevertheless, I eventually came to realize that, at a deeper level, when we speak of different chemicals acting upon each other, what we are really talking about is different configurations of Electro-Magnetic energy interacting.  Viewing molecular interactions in this way, we can say that molecules are just Nature’s way of constructing Electro-Magnetic messages.

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