Science Writing

Are Particles Alive?

The obvious answer is yes, isn’t it?

This post is going to be far more based in thoughts than reality but bear with me. I think it is an interesting question and before we can answer it, we have to answer another one; what is life?

I hate to be one of those people but life is defined by three terms according to Merriam Webster

a. The quality that distinguishes a vital and function being from a dead body.
b. A principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings.
c. An organismic state charactised by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.

Honestly, I hoped for more. A ‘principle or force’? That is maddeningly vague. The third definition is better and gives four conditions for life.

Metabolism is the process by which chemical change occurs within cells. This chemical change is driven by structures within cells such as mitochondria, lysosomes, ribosomes etc. that are all controlled by instructions buried within the nucleus and the DNA and RNA that resides there. All of these structures, DNA, RNA, golgi complexes, etc. are made up of atoms that represents the elements that make up all of the matter in the Universe.

It’s time to delve deeper and this is where it gets frankly very strange.

Atoms are made up of electrons that float in ‘shells’ around a core comprised of protons and neutrons. Interactions between these atoms form the matter that we know and are made out of. If we drop down one more level we find a realm dominated by quantum fluctuations and particles that deserve their own entire blog, written by someone far more qualified than me.

Quarks (Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Charm, and Strange), Leptons (Electron, Muon, Tau), Neutrinos (which are a type of Lepton but deserve their own post as well, which is why I’m going to separate them here), make up the atoms that make up the matter we are made from. And then, there are the force carrying particles called Bosons (the most famous is the Higgs which I’ve mentioned before in a previous post).

Think back to the definition of life and the four conditions given.

Growth; would you consider particles smashing together and forming atoms which then bond and form useful matter growth? Or is that a bridge too far, a leap of logic too great? There’s no doubt that particles grow; as we have seen the smallest particles that we know of grow into protons and neutrons, but does that mean these particles are alive? Do they live?

What about reaction to stimuli? That is an easier query to answer; yes. Atoms, particles, quarks, whatever, all react to stimuli. You can change an atoms attractiveness to another atom by messing about the electrons in its outer shell; it then seeks to right itself and fall back into it’s elemental, balanced state.

Reproduction? Maybe, but probably not. Yes, two atoms can bond together and form something else by sharing electrons but I hesitate to label that as reproduction.

And lastly, the one we started off with, metabolism. If you drill down deep enough particles are responsible for metabolism as they make up the cells that make us, us.

Does this mean then, that particles are alive?

Maybe?

I don’t have an answer to that question. Particles form structures that become life, of that there is no question, but are they themselves alive?

If you split an atom will it cry out in pain? Is the huge release of energy really just the death throws of a tortured victim?

And, let’s assume for a moment that particles are dead, truly dead. How then can they form life? How can a bunch of dead atoms combine in such a way to form life as we know it?

I’m sorry that you’ve gotten to the end of this post and I have left you only with more questions. I hope that this has given you a new perspective, and made you question the world around you.

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