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One of the great questions science has been trying to answer for centuries - millenia, in fact - is quite simple : what is life? Unfortunately, so far the answer from all our finest scientists amounts to a rather defensive, and often long-winded, "don't know".

We know quite a lot about life. Anybody can look at an item and say whether it is alive or not, and be right at least 99% of the time. Grass? Yes. Rock? No. Car? No (though I've known one or two that seemed to have a will of their own...) Squirrel stealing peanuts from my birdfeeder? Definitely, unless I manage to catch him.... (no chance - and between you and me, I wouldn't hurt him if I did catch him, but don't tell him that!).

We are also extremely good at terminating life - damage certain critical systems in any organism and its life will leak away, pretty much 100% reliably. But exactly what leaks away when something dies we still don't know. Can we take a sample of it? No. Can we create it? No, except by breeding, but that's more replication than creation. Can we add it to something that doesn't have it? No. Can we even detect its presence? No, except indirectly - is it moving/breathing, does it eat, can it breed? No-one has yet been able to design a Star Trek-type lifesigns detector, for the simple reason that we don't know what we're trying to detect.

To quote one of my first science teachers, a splendid old boy with a strong Polish accent, life is "immaterial" (only he said "immateeeeeerial"), meaning that it has no apparent substance. In the early twentieth century a famous experiment was done where patients near death with terminal illnesses were placed on a bed with a built-in microbalance, and readings were taken before and immediately after they died, to see if their weight had dropped as they died - any difference would be the weight of the soul. For a while the experimenter thought he had proved that the soul weighed about twenty-one grams (three quarters of an ounce), but his results couldn't be replicated by other researchers, the key test of any scientific experiment, and eventually his theory was discredited. It's a very difficult experiment to carry out accurately, because human bodyweight fluctuates naturally anyway, as you will know if you've ever dieted, and because if the subject moves around at all while dying it tends to destabilise the microbalance. You can't very well ask a dying man to keep absolutely still so as not spoil your experiment! But as far as anyone can detect, life has no measurable mass.

It is now usually assumed that life is "a process" rather than a tangible thing (which doesn't actually mean anything, if you think about it), or perhaps some kind of energy field, mainly on the basis that if it isn't matter then it must be energy. Perhaps akin to electomagnetism, as we know the body, and particularly the brain, produce weak electromagnetic signals. But not just electromagnetism, because if it was, an MRI scan or a large electromagnetic coil like the ones that are used to pick up cars in junkyards would presumably kill you. To say nothing of the Earth's magnetic field. Perhaps life is just software, a very complex program running on the super-powerful wetware computer which is your body, in which case it should be possible to learn to back it up, and perhaps even move it into a nice new body, without the defects of your old one. Which would be nice. Immortality, anyone?

If we did know what life is, it would also make surgeons' jobs much easier. If you've ever attempted to repair a faulty computer, what's the first thing you do? Switch it off, of course, and restart it. If you could do that with a human, think how much easier heart surgery would be, for example. But of course you can't. I find it quite amazing that medical science has learned as much as it has about how our bodies work, given this huge constraint.

But perhaps even more importantly, if we could just figure out what life is, we might get a clue to some of the other great questions, like why are we here, and where did we come from? Cosmic fluke, divine plan, alien experiment? Most scientists hate answers that involve God doing miracles, because it undermines the whole principle of replicatable experiments and cause and effect (and they're not much keener on the alien experiment concept), but on the other hand the cosmic fluke theory is struggling too. You can mix chemicals together and hit them with simulated lightning strikes till you drop dead from boredom and your research funds dry up, but you won't manage to persuade the chemicals to come to life - plenty of very talented and well-funded people have tried. Some of them will tell you that they have managed to create the "precursor compunds" for life like this, but you won't see see these precursors eating or moving around...

Science is so ticked off with this that it has come up with a new(ish) theory called Panspermia, which basically says that aha! life didn't originate on Earth after all, but sailed in from elsewhere on a comet or somesuch, and is sort of spread out through the entire universe, and that's why all the expensive experiments at duplicating early Earth conditions and trying to make life arise spontaneously in the laboratory haven't worked. So there. The trouble with this of course is that it doesn't actually answer the origin question, merely shoves it a bit further away.

What's wrong with the idea that there is a God, and he created it all, more or less like it says in the Book? (Though almost certainly not literally in six twenty-four hour days). Basically just that it's too weird and scary, destroying the comforting and fashionable modern illusion that we are entirely responsible for our own destiny and answerable only to ourselves. After all, if there is a God he might want us to do something, or even, Heaven forbid, hold us accountable for our actions - and that would never do. But if you think that's weird and scary, you really should try talking to the Quantum Mechanics people sometime.

Copyright © Jon Storm 2006