One interesting research question today deals with the origins of life. In this talk by Dr. Martin Hanczyc, he introduces the concept of protocells — minimal life models. Dr. Hanczyc is an associate professor at the Institute of Physics Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Southern Denmark.

His presentation shows some interesting protocell designs including the oil-droplets, which he shows video clips of [1]. One line or idea fascinated me though: Life is being in a non-equilibrium state. And I often recall one of my chemistry professors mention this as: “Chemists don’t really die, they just reach equilibrium.”

Most studies are done at the equilibrium state. Most models are based on equilibrium phenomena. At the very basic, life is a series of chemical reactions and as a chemist, we usually deal with these as a series of steps in equilibrium. I’m not trying to take away anything form studying equilibrium systems because they generally work. But then we realize that the moment a living system reaches equilibrium, it’s going to be non-living.

Coming in closer to home, our research group is part of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems(MPI-IS). And recently, we had a gathering of the different research divisions for some institutional evaluations. MPI-IS’ mission is to understand the principles of perception, action and learning in autonomous systems that successfully interact with complex environments and to use this understanding to design future systems. One research division under Prof. Dr. Ir. Eric Jan Mittemeijer deals with phase transformations, thermodynamics and kinetics. In his presentation, he gave us the same interesting message: “the most fascinating things are happening outside of equilibrium”.

So as I reflect upon these statements, maybe this state of being outside equilibrium isn’t just about these microscopic systems, but also applies to all scales. We begin to philosophize:

When do we feel most alive?

For me, I feel most alive when I am not sitting alone doing the same thing over and over again. I feel most alive when I move and visit new places, when I interact with people, when I see/hear something that makes me laugh so hard, when I feel so much pain, when I get this urge to move and not stay comfortable.

When I am disturbed from equilibrium.

Sources:

1.Hanczyc, M. M., Toyota, T. Ikegami, T. , Packard, N., and Sugawara, T. Fatty Acid Chemistry at the Oil-Water Interface: Self-Propelled Oil Droplets. 2007. J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2007, 129 (30), pp 9386–9391