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The Physicist’s New Book of Life

Who is Jeremy England? There are many answers to that question. He is a biochemistry graduate who became an MIT assistant professor in physics when he was 29 years old. He is an ordained rabbi. He is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. He is a descendant of the first life-form on Earth. He can also be described as an assemblage of atoms that exhibits complex, life-like behavior. England might describe himself as one of the many dissipators of energy in the universe—this, he says, seems to be a useful way to answer the question that humans have asked for so many millennia: What is life, and how did it arise?

This question—and England’s answer—form the basis of his new book Every Life Is On Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origin of Living Things, which explores the idea that burning up energy is the base activity of life. But England has no simple, neat tale to tell: This is a complex, multilayered subject, and must be treated as more than a scientific issue, he says. That’s why Every Life Is On Fire daringly brings ideas from the Hebrew Scriptures and uses them to unpack the science. Cultural and religious traditions have long been exploring this territory, he says, and can complement scientific angles on the question of where we ultimately came from. If we really want to understand ourselves, he suggests, we’ll need more than science.

BOTH SIDES NOW: “I always wanted to do physics because I liked the predictive power of simple principles,” Jeremy England says. “At the same time, I was fascinated by the form-function relationships of biology. So I was always trying to do both.”Katherine Taylor

How did you get into combining physics and biology to come up with ideas about life’s origins?

I always wanted to do physics because I

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