Monday, January 7, 2008

The Laws of Physics: Part One

I am standing on top of a three-story building, located in a normal city somewhere on Planet Earth. The weather is sunny, with only a light breeze. I go to the edge of the rooftop and drop an object over the side. The object does not fall. It instead rises upward, moves laterally, and eventually glides downward, coming to rest in a tree. After a moment, the object rises upward again, coming to rest on my hand.

I have defied the laws of physics, right?

Or, maybe my little falcon just went out for a spin. Despite being heavier than air, this living creature can use its body parts to overcome gravity for periods of time. It must expend a tremendous amount of energy to do this, but evolution has given it reason to develop wings, light bones, and strong pectoral muscles.

A dead falcon, of course, would not be able to do this. I could take a freshly dead falcon, drop it over the edge, and it would plummet straight downward. It is life that flies in the face of physical laws, defying them as long as possible in order to survive, thrive, reproduce, and move on to the next generation of living beings to repeat the cycle. Every living cell of every living being works until its death to stave off entropy and keep on living just a little bit longer. There is a will involved to manipulate things at even the molecular level. There would be no reason for the molecules of our bodies to pick up a chunk of rock and move it from one place to another, unless there were a will involved--and, in fact, once the ineffable quality of life dissipates from our molecules, we are no longer moving rocks around, or even ourselves around.

Life is intention.

When primordial life crawled from the oceans, it found that land-dwelling required an enormous energy expenditure in order to simply remain alive. Hard structures were needed to keep organs from collapsing under their own weight, as jellyfish washed up on shore. Plants developed cellulose so that they could grow upward, collecting more solar energy. Animals developed skeletons, both endo- and exo-, to support their organs and permit them to move their bodies. All of this, to fight hard against the physical law of gravity, which threatens daily to pull us down, flatten us, immobilize us. Fighting against gravity requires so much from us, even causing pain. Why the effort? Why not just lie down and die, and not put forth the effort?

Life is fighting.

Entropy threatens us at every level of our being. Our organs must constantly work to keep our bodies in order. We must keep ourselves warm enough. We have to eat in order to replace molecules and energy lost through life processes. We breathe to maintain a proper level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood. Cells are lost and replaced in the neverending construction zone of our bodies. We race to keep these bodies together long enough to accomplish something, usually reproduction (for most organisms), racing against the inevitable flaws that occur in a system that isn't built to last forever, just long enough to ensure successful replacement.

Life is a struggle against the physical laws surrounding us. Defying those physical laws is something we do on a daily basis, every time we stand up, and every time we take a breath. An act of will, extant only in animate matter. Perhaps someday the nature of animate life, will, and intention will be explained by minute chemical reactions. We have already unraveled a number of these chemical reactions, after all, as part of man's quest to further unlock ways to extend life past its existing limitations. The way I see it, however, is that the relationship between living matter and physical laws is an ancient, complex struggle, for the animate to master its own matter, in defiance of the laws of physics.

This is just the beginning. I'll be getting more technical and more philosophical in the next section.

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