Light and Life (PDF)

[An extract from my next book–some speculations on energies]

Light and Life

The forms of nature are subtle and far ranging. When one moves from the lattice structure of a crystal or the dance of electrons in a superconductor to the coherent oscillations in the human brain, the distinction between animate and inanimate begins to become blurred. Indeed a particularly striking suggestion is that light itself may play a key role in living systems.

Light has a powerful mythic history in the creation of the world. In the Judeo-Christian religion light was a result of the first act of creation and, in this sense, everything that exists comes from light. Light fills the entire universe and there is not one region of space, however remote, that is not criss-crossed by complex patterns of electromagnetic radiation. Indeed, the random noise that can be picked up by a microwave dish facing an empty region of the sky is believed to be the actual radiation present at the Big Bang origin of the universe. The radiation that once filled the embryo universe is present everywhere and, as space expanded over billions of years, so this aboriginal radiation was stretched out into longer and longer wavelengths until it forms the hiss that can be picked up by a microwave dish today.

(Foot Note: However, I do not all together accept the Big Bang convention that the universe was created at a single instant in time. The discussion of the previous chapter suggests that there is no fundamental level or origin to the universe. The “Big bang radiation” may nonetheless be the residue of some spectacular event occurring within a particular range of energies and space-time.)

Even the smallest region of space is filled with radiation from the extremely low frequencies of the Big Bang remnants, through the range of radio waves, from visible light and into ultra violet, and so up to gamma rays of the highest energy. This radiation comes from stars, supernovas, quasars, the event horizon of black holes, and from the twisting magnetic fields that stretch across vast regions of empty space. Moreover all this light is carrying information–it conveys information about it origin, in a nuclear process deep within the heart of a star, or as matter hurtles into  a black hole. Every volume of space is alive with electromagnetic radiation and, therefore, packed with an immense amount of data about the whole universe.

Light is a highly efficient way of encoding and transmitting information. Think also of the large number of telephone calls, television programs and telecommunication channels that can be carried on a single beam of light along a fibre optic link. This light stretches to the limits of all space so that each tiny region of space contains an amount of information that far exceeds the memory capacity of all the largest supercomputers put together. Indeed, every time you look into the night sky some of this information enters your eye and then unfolds within the brain to give a picture of the universe of stars and galaxies.

Light is information and communication. But what is truly remarkable is the recent highly controversial idea that light may play a central role in all biological systems. One of the active workers in this field is Fritz-Albert Popp of the Institute of Biophysical Cell Research in Kaiserlautern, Germany who is also associated with the Centre for Frontier Studies at Temple University, Philadelphia. While his ideas are not accepted by all physicists they are certainly striking in their implications.

For many decades it had been speculated that electromagnetic fields are associated with living systems. But research in this field is extremely difficult to carry out, since for every good, well documented experiment there are many others that can never be duplicated. Nevertheless, a number of experimentalists have been looking at this proposed bio-radiation and have suggested that photons, quantum particles of light, are emitted from the DNA molecule.

DNA is the key molecule in the nucleus of every cell and now it seems that this same molecule may be giving off a very weak level of radiation–just a few photons at a time. Experimentalists who have investigated the nature of this radiation believe that it is coherent, just like laser light only enormously weaker in its intensity. A biological molecule, DNA, seems to be acting like a laser and producing collective vibrations in an electromagnetic field.

If this is eventually confirmed to everyone’s satisfaction the question must be raised as to why. Nature does not normally do things without a reason. Why should the central molecule of life be emitting a very weak form of laser light? What could be its purpose?

An immediate answer is communication. Admittedly it is just a conjecture but one that scientists like Popp are willing to make. Suppose that DNA is using electromagnetic radiation, coherent light, to communicate inside the cell. Light can penetrate across the cell and is ideally suited for transmitting information. could it be that the cell uses a two level communication system–slower speed communication via conventional molecular processes that take place around the DNA molecule and a much higher speed communication within the whole cell using coherent light?

Scientists are also looking at coherent radiation from individual cells. The idea is that the entire organism may be swimming in a “living”, vibrating electromagnetic field. It may turn out, for example, that coherent light is being used as a communication system throughout the whole plant or animal–between DNA and the cell, between cell and cell and between organ and organ. The entire organism may therefore be a complex flow of information in which each cell and organ is responding to a constant flux of electromagnetic messages.

A living being would be a complex communications system in which coherent light ties together all its activities of metabolism and change. The very coherence of light would therefore be acting to preserve an even greater coherence–that of a living, changing organism. In this sense, light is active information. It is a global and active information that stretches across the cell, indeed the whole organism, and coordinates its efforts.

Individual animals may even be able to communicate with each other using electromagnetic radiation, just as do cells in a body. Indeed, one may ask if information, in the form of the coherent dance of fields of light, is the essence of all life and the way that complex living systems coordinate themselves?

At this point some readers may feel uneasy, for the idea of a complex flux of electromagnetic radiation which controls the activities of an organism begins to sound like a “life force”. The idea of such a field of information has echos of an elan vital, or of an aura of energy which surrounds the organism and is supposed to indicate its state of health. But in fact this is just what several scientists are indeed claiming–that the radiation given out by healthy cells is quite different from that given out by those that are sick or dying!

Could it be that health is an active flow of information within the body while sickness is a breakdown in that flow–an impoverishment of information? The ever changing flux information carried in within the electromagnetic fields and in the complex interlocking of a wide variety of chemical reactions must so subtle that, to an external observer, its very complexity may almost appear as chaotic. Indeed, it is very difficult to distinguish between chaos and a flux of ever changing complexity. So, when sickness occurs the overall coherence of these complex and subtle field of information will begin to break down until all that is left will be the various individual processes–a simple ticking over of the machinery as it were. This could explain why scientists discover what looks like chaotic behaviour within the heart or brain is characteristic of health, while simple regular heart beats, for example, presage a heart attack.

This idea that living systems are sustained by highly complex fields of cooperative information may characterize not only living organisms but entire ecosystems, societies and indeed of the whole planet. Life is always fluctuating and exploring, while simple oscillations are more characteristic of machine and dead matter. Simple stability spells death while vitality lies in the ability to support a complex and subtle pattern of global fluctuations. An ever flowing, ever changing pattern of meaning becomes life itself and the boundary between the animate and the inanimate begins to dissolve.

The whole field of electromagnetic bio-information is controversial but it is nevertheless engendering some interesting research and raising a variety of significant questions. Is it possible, for example, for an organism to gather electromagnetic information about the environment and then feed it back into itself? If this is true then an electromagnetic sense must be added to those others of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Indeed there is already considerable evidence that many animals use electromagnetic sensors to help them navigate.

The surface of the earth is alive with electromagnetic signals. In addition to the magnetic field of the earth there is the radiation from the sun that falls on the earth and its upper atmosphere. There are slow oscillations in which the electromagnetic field of the whole earth vibrates at a frequency of between seven and eight times every second. There are also waves of the activity high in the ionosphere and magnetosphere whose effects are ultimately felt on the surface of the earth. Indeed, the whole earth is a vast and complex sea of radiation whose strength and pattern varies very subtly from place to place, for the information encoded in each location is affected by the chemical composition of nearby rocks, by minerals, underground streams and surface water. This radiation pattern is also modulated by the daily fluctuations of the earth’s weather.

So within any tiny portion of the earth’s surface there is encoded a vast reservoir of electromagnetic information, not only concerning the global state of the earth but also the details about the particular local area. As a bird flies through the air, an animal moves across the surface of the earth, or a fish swims in the oceans, so it may be picking up and responding to a sea of electromagnetic information that is far more complex than that in any radar signal or radio broadcast. Moreover, the organism may even be picking up the faint electromagnetic signals and modulations given by its prey or other members of its pack. It is quite possible that some of this vast reservoir of information is decoded by the animal so that direct information about its surroundings is constantly being received.

But electromagnetic information is only one of several possibilities for a vast ocean of information carried through sound. For a small mammal this sea of sounds paints a detailed picture of all the transient patterns of life and movement within the immediate environment. An animal not only responds through the ears to what is “heard” but possibly at the cellular level to high frequency vibrations and to low frequencies that cause the whole organism to oscillate in sympathy. The animal will be aware of the way its own sounds are reflected back and transformed by the environment. It will constantly be interpreting the complex symphony of bird song, insect sound and animal cries. When it comes to whales and dolphins this matrix of vibrational information may extend throughout the ocean for several hundred miles. And add to all this a sea of smells which, to a dog, can produce a vivid impression of the world around. Every living being is immersed in a rich, subtle and multilevel ocean of information.

DNA: A listening molecule

If DNA is responsible for sending coherent photons into the cell then is it also possible for this radiation to be modulated and bounced back from the environment where it is detected by the same molecule? Could it be that DNA can actually “listen” to the environment around it?

The DNA molecule is a vast repository of information, indeed it contains the whole history of the cell’s ancestors and evolution. This information is then expressed by directing, in exactly the right time sequence, the synthesis of various proteins which become involved in, depending on their nature, growth, regular metabolism, or repair. DNA is therefore pictures as the chairperson of the board, the active principle at the top of the hierarchy.

But there are difficulties connected with such a one way flow of instructions. For how precisely is the correct information selected at just the right moment for its expression? If the cell turns out a particular protein too late or too soon then it will disrupt its whole metabolism. Moreover, only a very small percentage of all the information stored in DNA appears ever to be used. What is the function of the rest, those silent areas of DNA? Do they simply contained garbled messages and discarded information from far back in the cell’s evolutionary history? Or could they have the potential to exercise a useful function?

Suppose that DNA could actually listen and respond to the world around it. Suppose that a cell operates in a democratic fashion so that DNA becomes a venerated elder statesperson rather than a dictator. DNA would be like a giant set of reference books on metabolism and the synthesis of various proteins. And, as with a reference book, the actual information that is selected would depend upon a wider context–on the whole cell and on the organism of which it is a part, even perhaps on the external environment.

The electromagnetic dance within the cell carries the data on the ever changing context of the world outside and could play a role in selecting specific information from DNA. In this way, the genetic code would then be part of a much greater language, the conversation of the whole organism, a conversation that even extends far out into the environment. The DNA molecule itself would be constantly informed about its wider surroundings and, in turn, certain of its “hidden information” could, for example, be made active. It is even possible that the whole cell could act in an intelligent way and cause modifications within its own DNA. In other words, a mutation of the organism would be the cooperative response to some overall change in the global context in which the cell lives, rather than a purely random and purposeless event. Evolution would become a cooperative process, the outcome of a constant dialogue between other lifeforms and their entire environment.

The idea that life is a complex dance of meaning and information lead to yet other speculations. One idea that at first sight looks completely crazy, yet has been seriously proposed, is that food may contain not only nutrients but also information! When a  predator hunts its prey, so this theory goes, it is not just seeking a source of protein but a source of information. In consuming its prey it is ingesting a complex structure of information. In this way, information is passed between species.

While this idea sounds pretty far out it is not too distant from that held by many indigenous peoples who view food a nourishing the whole of a person and not just the physical body. To the hunters of North America, caribu and buffalo is “good medicine” and a person thrives by taking its meat, for it does more than supply bodily energy. According to this view, food acts to feed a person at many levels, so that certain foods that happen to be high in protein could in other ways be “bad medicine”. Likewise, a Chinese shaman will perform an act of divination using the bone of a sheep or goat. The animal eats only of pure grass and drinks of pure water, the shaman says, therefore the “universal” will be strong within the bone so that it can hear and see.

Could it be that this “universal” of Chinese tradition is in fact active information and global meaning? Is the web of life, the dance of predator and prey, one great ballet of ever changing information? And is evolution the intelligent and continued development of this symphony of meaning? Indeed if the individual organism is viewed as the manifestation of coherence and information then the whole history and pattern of life’s unfolding on earth must be seen in the same way. Synchronicities now become just one more aspect of this greater dane of meaningful patterns.

By introducing information as a key player we also see how the division between life and the inanimate has begun to dissolve. We realize that all coherent systems can never be fully reduced to interacting components, for they are responding to a collective dance, a dance which represents the essential authenticity of that particular level of being.

[An extract from my next book–some speculations on energies] Light and Life The forms of nature are subtle and far ranging. When one moves from the lattice structure of a crystal or the dance of electrons in a superconductor to the coherent oscillations in the human brain, the distinction between animate and inanimate begins to […]