IdleTheory SOHO Michelson Doppler Imager 6767  continuum images from Stanford University 2001/05/05 Slow Burn Fire

From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve,


(Blaise Pascal)

What is Life?

Most definitions of life provide a list of characteristics of living entities.

  1. Living things have the ability to take energy from their environment and change it from one form to another. They have a metabolism.
  2. Organisms tend to be homeostatic, self-regulating.
  3. Living creatures respond to stimuli.
  4. Organisms tend to be complex and highly organized.
  5. Organisms tend to grow and develop.
  6. Living things reproduce by making copies of themselves.
  7. Over long periods, life adapts and evolves in step with external changes in the environment through mutation and natural selection.
  8. Organisms die.

Life as Fire

A forest fire exhibits metabolism: it burns. Such a fire can also grow and develop. And it can reproduce itself, by sending out blazing sparks to ignite new fires. The flame of a fire is a complex, highly organized, recognizable entity. The fire moves as it burns through the forest: it moves. The fire responds to external stimulus: it follows the wind, and is doused by water. And eventually, when it has consumed all the fuel it can, it dwindles and dies. A forest fire thus exhibits many of the components of a living creatures!

But a forest fire might not be said to be self-regulating - it is largely determined by the quantity of fuel available to it. As more fuel becomes available, it burns more fiercely.

Also forest fires do not evolve over time. They begin in some tinder-dry forest, perhaps from a lightning strike, the focus of sunlight, or the discharge of static electricity. And then they burn, producing secondary fires, until finally they have exhausted the available timber, baulked by seas, rivers, wastelands, mountains. Forest fires may burn for weeks, even months, but they eventually burn themselves out. They are like some life form which grows and multiplies, and then one by one its offspring die, and it becomes extinct, leaving no further generations.

Slow Burn FireBut not all fires burn with the intensity of forest fires. Slow-burning, cooler, smouldering embers, that show no flame, can slowly eat through dry wood, consuming over hours what a blazing fire might consume in minutes. It is possible to imagine such fires slowly eating their way through a forest, or some fuel source. And because they burn slower and cooler, they burn much longer. Such fires might burn for years, or centuries. And if, in some forest, new plants grew up behind them, such slow fires might be sustained indefinitely by new plant growth. The cooler and more slow-burning the fire, the longer it would burn, compared with hot, quick-burning wildfires.

And it then must be remembered that very, very slow fires burn in every cell of every plant and animal. In this combustion process, glucose and oxygen "burn" to produce carbon dioxide and water, and enough energy to power the continuation of the combustion process, just like in a forest fire. But in cells, the combustion process is slowed into a multitude of stages, at a much lower temperature, so that the energy of combustion (respiration) is released very gradually, through a series of enzyme-catalyzed reactions, rather than all at once.

If glucose is burned in air, it produces carbon dioxide, water, and heat.

C6H12O6 + 602 -> 6CO2 + 6H2O - 686 kcal/mole

But in cells, the reaction synthesizes energy-rich ATP molecules which are used to power the sysnthesis of cell constituents, molecule transport, and muscle contraction.

C6H12O6 + 602 + 36ADP -> 6CO2 + 6H2O + 36ATP

Each bond of ATP represents 7.3 kcal/mole, so 36 ATP molecules represent 263 kcal/mole, a conversion efficiency of 38%. ATP is synthesized in cell mytochondria. When ATP releases its energy (to power muscular contraction or whatever), it breaks one phosphorus bond, and becomes ADP, which is cycled back round to mytochondria to get the phosphorus bond restored to make more ATP.

If the reaction of glucose and oxygen were to proceed as it does in air, plants and animals would catch fire or explode. Slowing the reaction by taking it through a series of stages, and using it to synthesize packets of energy in the form of ATP, makes for a kind of slow burn.

The Natural Selection of Fire

Big, hot, blazing forest wildfires multiply and burn themselves out very fast. Small, creeping, cool fires last far longer. The slowest, coolest fires of all may last indefinitely. Life is such slow fire.

And it begins to become possible to consider life as being result of the evolution of ever cooler, ever-slower-burning, longer-living fire. With a variety of different fires, those which burn hot and fast lived brief lives, while slower burning fires last longer. Then what is called Life is the product of the evolution of fire to burn ever slower and cooler, and live longer and longer. For paradoxically it is the least energetic, slowest growing, and slowest reproducing processes that gradually come to predominate - because high-energy, fast reproducing processes burn out fast. Somehow, one kind of continuous hot combustion, by degrees, gave rise to the cooler, catalyzed reactions that take place in the cells of living creatures.

In plant life, solar-powered photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen, in the endothermic (heat-requiring) reverse reaction to the combustion of glucose and oxygen. Thus photosynthesis in plant cells continually feeds the glucose-oxygen fires that "burn" within them. A forest of plants is already slowly ablaze, before any forest wildfire overtakes it.

And plants which are made largely of cellulose - linked chains of glucose - in turn provide the fuel for grazing animals to burn. Such grazing animals act like forest fires, slowly consuming plants as they grow.

There are plenty of other exothermic (heat-producing) combustion processes apart from that of glucose and oxygen. The first terrestrial combustion processes may have involved neither of these. There does not have to be timber and oxygen for combustion to take place, fires to burn.

If so then the first fire was of cataclysmically explosive dimensions, and has been succeeded by successively slower and cooler fires. The first fire was perhaps what we now call the Big Bang, and the stars were secondary slower-burning cooler fires, and terrestrial life is a fire several orders of magnitude slower and cooler. The stars themselves have lifetimes which reflect those of forest fires, with the largest and brightest stars burning out the fastest, the smaller and cooler ones lingering longer, replicating themselves in supernovas whose shock waves create new stars.

From this perspective, life started with the Big Bang, and has continued ever since, in ever cooler, slower-burning fires. There never was an origin of life on this inert and hitherto-lifeless planet, but simply a continuation of the same process. What we call "life", the plants and animals that inhabit the surface of this planet, are simply slow-burning fires which reflect, rather dimly, their ancestral stars.

In this approach, there isn't really anything special about terrestrial life. It's just another kind of combustion process. It was not that life started on this planet 600 million years ago, but rather that some 6 million years after the planet had formed, another kind of self-sustaining combustion process got under way. It was not the first, and it won't be the last.

The Internal Combustion model of Idle Life

Idle Theory's original model of life was that of a continually-running internal combustion engine which periodically pumped fuel into its own fuel tank. When the engine was pumping fuel into its tank, it revved up, and the frequency of combustion - and engine power output - increased. When the engine idled, the frequency of combustion reduced to whatever power was required to merely turn the engine itself against its own frictional resistance.

In this model of life, the internal combustion engine actually incorporates fire in the combustion of gasoline (refined from crude oil made up of compressed fossil plants) and oxygen in its cylinders. Internal combustion "life" fed not on living forests, but upon subterranean fossilized forests. More deeply, in this conception of life, the engine "died" when the combustion process ceased, and the engine stalled. While the fire exploded in its cylinders, the engine lived - once combustion ceased, the engine died.

In Idle Theory's energy model of life a living creature works (burns fuel to provide motive power) to acquire more fuel to sustain the process. But it does so in a discontinuous duty cycle - first working to fill itself up with fuel, then idling until falling fuel levels require another bout of refuelling. The most efficient forms of this kind of life were those which did the least work (or idled the most) to keep their motors fueled and running.

Idle life - life that worked the minimum - was in some sense life that burnt the slowest and coolest. Busy life, hard-working life, was life in which combustion frequency was high, and which ran the hottest. Idle life, leisured life, was life in which the combustion frequency was low, and which consequently ran cool. Busy life was fast bright fire, and Idle life was slow cool fire.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 12 May 2001