What is Life?

Royal Trinity Hospice

A pond in the garden of the Royal Trinity Hospice.

On Monday, my good friend Paula Chandler died.

It seems shocking to me that I can even type those words.

She had cancer, and was in a hospice, and her passing was no surprise to her or those who loved her. But it was, and still is, a terrible shock.

It is unthinkable to me that we will never converse again.

How can someone be alive and completely self-aware and witty on Saturday; exchanging texts on Sunday evening; and then simply gone on Monday morning?

Her body was still there, but the essential spark that anyone would recognise as being ‘Paula’, was gone.

As I sat in the garden of the Royal Trinity Hospice, I reflected on a number of things.

And surrounded by teeming beautiful life, the question of “What is Life?” came to my mind. Paula would have been interested in this question.

What is life?

In particular I tried to recall the details of the eponymous book by Addy Pross.

In honesty I can’t recommend the book because it singularly fails to answer the question it sets itself.

In the same way that a book called “How to become rich” might provide an answer for the author but not the reader, so Addy Pross’s book was probably valuable for Addy Pross as he tried to clarify his thoughts. And to that extent the book is worth reading.

Life is ubiquitous on Earth, and after surveying previous authors’ reflections, Addy Pross focuses the question of “What is Life?” at one specific place: the interface between chemistry and biology:

  • In chemistry, reactions run their course blindly and become exhausted.
  • In biology, chemistry seeks out energy sources to maintain what Addy Pross calls a¬†dynamic, kinetic stability.

So how does chemistry ‘become’ biology?

In the same way that a spinning top is stable as long as it spins. Or a vortex persists in a flowing fluid. Similarly life seems to be a set of chemical reactions which exhibit an ability to ‘keep themselves going’.

What is life?

Re-naming ‘life’ as ‘dynamic kinetic stability’ does not seem to me to be particularly satisfactory.

It doesn’t explain how or why things spontaneously acquire dynamic kinetic stability any more than saying something is alive explains its aliveness.

I do expect that one day¬†someone will answer the question of “What is Life?” in a meaningful technical way.

But for now, as I think about Paula, and the shocking disappearance of her unique dynamic kinetic stability, I am simply lost for words.

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3 Responses to “What is Life?”

  1. Carole Hegedus Says:

    Hello Michael

    Here is an answer that I found helpful:

    On the death of any living creature, the spirit returns to the spiritual world and the body to the bodily world. In this however, only the bodies are subject to change. The spiritual world is like a single spirit who stands like unto a light behind the bodily world and who, when any single creature comes into being, shines through it as through a window. According to the kind and size of the window, less or more light enters the world. The light itself however remains unchanged. (Aziz Nasafi, 13th century Persia)

    I think there is more to us than the physical. We can’t know, but what you know as a scientist is that nothing can be destroyed, it can only be changed.

    Your friend is OK, more than OK.

    Wishing you comfort.

    kind regards, CaroleH

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:


    Thank you for kind thoughts.


  3. John Nunn Says:

    Hi Michael,

    I am sorry to read about the loss of your friend; your loss as well as that of her family and others close to her.

    For some death comes as a sweet release from increasing suffering – especially for those who have lived a fulfilling life and reached an age where they are happy to leave. But in so many others, I can’t help feeling “What a waste?” They still had so much to give…

    But your wondering about life is itself interesting: Why does a collection of unguided protons that came into existence without purpose or direction trouble to wonder what life might be? Is this perhaps an inner rumour suggesting the possibility that there is more to life than the purely chemical/physical dynamical kinetic stability?

    I cannot bring myself to feel that I am simply a borrowed collection of protons. When a loved one dies I hurt and grieve for something much more valuable than just a beautiful collection of them.
    From this side we sometimes say ‘they are gone’, but if they are not to return it feels indistinguishable from saying they have ‘vanished’.

    It would be so helpful if someone could come back from ‘the other side’ and tell us about it. But if he did, would we believe him?

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