The Demon in the Machine by Professor Paul Davies

Book talk with Professor Paul Davies
Monday, May 13, 2019

Book talk with Professor Paul Davies, ASU and Bisi Olulode, Communications Officer, PLuS Alliance

Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and best-selling science author. He has published around 30 books and hundreds of research papers and review articles across a range of scientific fields. He is also well-known as a media personality and science popularizer in several countries. His research interests have focused mainly on quantum gravity, early universe cosmology, the theory of quantum black holes and the nature of time. Among his many awards are the 1995 Templeton Prize, the Faraday Prize from The Royal Society, the Kelvin Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics, the Robinson Cosmology Prize and the Bicentenary Medal of Chile. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in the 2007 Queen's birthday honours list and the asteroid 6870 Pauldavies is named after him. His most recent book is called "The Demon in the Machine",

I started off by asking Professor Davies what motivated him to write this book?

PD - When I was a student I read Erwin Schrödinger’s book What is Life? published in 1944. Schrödinger was a giant of theoretical physics, an architect of quantum mechanics, which explains normal matter. But for all his vaunted genius, Schrödinger was baffled by living matter. Decades of research have still left us with a mystery. Nobody knows what life is or how it began. Now, research in the Beyond Center and elsewhere is finally pointing us to a solution. This book is a call to arms.

BO - What is the essence of the argument that you are trying to put across?

PD - That life is more than complex chemistry – that is just the hardware. The key property of life is the way it manipulates and organizes patterns of information. It is this ‘software’ of life that is the basis of our research, and where the riddle will finally be solved.

BO - What philosophy, evidence or school of thought is at the heart of your work?

PD - Anti-reductionism. There is a tendency among biologists to suppose that all life can be reduced to known physics. To be sure, life can be explained by physics, but not known physics. Schrödinger conjectured that a new type of physical law may be needed. I think he was right, and that new law couples events at the atomic level to the whole system in a way that allows top-down causation.

BO - What is your theory on how life began?

PD - I think we are almost completely in the dark. But sticking my neck out, I hypothesize in the book that the new type of law I just mentioned will fast-track complex matter toward life. How? Treating information as a physical quantity and applying the hypothesized law, I predict we will find certain ‘solutions’ to the dynamics of information corresponding to patterns or motifs of information that correspond to the way we observe living things harnessing information to manage their complex biochemistry.

BO - What has your research shown that enabled the transition from non-life to life billions of years ago?

PD - Recognizing the power of information to dramatically transform material systems.

BO - Are you working on a project with colleagues as part of the PLuS Alliance?

PD - My Plus Alliance collaboration with UNSW is in the field of astrobiology and the origin of life. The Australian Center for Astrobiology at UNSW has been especially influential in my thinking. We are working on a major research grant proposal with the generic title LIM: ‘Life, Information and Mind’. This is a more ambitious approach in which our work applies information theory to consciousness as well as life. There is a chapter in my book called ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ that addresses the consciousness puzzle.

Professor Davies is part of the Interplanetary centre at Arizona State Univeristy.  You can find out more about this bold enterprise at ASU Interplanetary Initiative

Professor Davies will be discussing his work at various locations on the dates below; 

June 2: Hay-on-Wye Festival

June 3: Bristol Festival of Ideas

August 9-11 Bendigo Writers Festival

August 13: UNSW - Science week

August 15: Perth

Sept 16: Coventry Cathedral

Oct 10: New Scientist Live, London