On a sunny afternoon, at a bustling cafe less than a mile from Stanford University’s campus, near Palo Alto, and more than 5,000 miles from his home, an assistant professor from MIT is telling me about science. Very advanced science. His name is Jeremy England, and at 33, he’s already being called the next Charles Darwin.
In town to give a lecture, the Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar speaks quickly, his voice rising a few pitches in tone, his long-fingered hands making sudden jerks when he’s excited. He’s skinny, with a long face, scraggly beard and carelessly groomed mop of sandy brown hair — what you might expect from a theoretical physicist. But then there’s the street-style Adidas on his feet and the kippah atop his head. And the fact that this scientist also talks a lot about God.
EVERY 30 YEARS OR SO WE EXPERIENCE THESE GIGANTIC STEPS FORWARD. …AND THIS MIGHT BE IT.
Carl Franck, a Cornell physics professor
The 101 version of his big idea is this: Under the right conditions, a random group of atoms will self-organize, unbidden, to more effectively use energy. Over time and with just the right amount of, say, sunlight, a cluster of atoms could come remarkably close to what we call life. In fact, here’s a thought: Some things we consider inanimate actually may already be “alive.” It all depends on how we define life, something England’s work might prompt us to reconsider. “People think of the origin of life as being a rare process,” says Vijay Pande, a Stanford chemistry professor. “Jeremy’s proposal makes life a consequence of physical laws, not something random.”
England’s idea may sound strange, even incredible, but it’s drawn the attention of an impressive posse of high-level academics. After all, while Darwinism may explain evolution and the complex world we live in today, it doesn’t account for the onset of intelligent beings. England’s insistence on probing for the step that preceded all of our current assumptions about life is what makes him stand out, says Carl Franck, a Cornell physics professor, who’s been following England’s work closely. “Every 30 years or so we experience these gigantic steps forward,” Franck says. “We’re due for one. And this might be it.”
And all from a modern Orthodox Jew with fancy sneakers.
Before England became a religious man — he prays three times a day — he was a scientist. From the time he could read, he devoured books on subjects from philosophy to music to fantasy. By 9 he was plowing his way through Stephen Hawking’s opus, A Brief History of Time . “He couldn’t comprehend it, but he tried really hard,” says his father, Richard England, an economics professor at the University of New Hampshire. Yes, Dad is an economics professor and Mom a public school teacher, and the couple took their two children to museums and to visit the Harvard campus, just a few hours from their small seacoast town. But the elder England contends his son’s upbringing doesn’t begin to explain his intellectual curiosity.
Or England’s long timeline of asking big questions. Over drinks some years ago, a childhood friend reminded him of a time that young Jeremy turned to him out of nowhere and reflected: “You know, Adam, if the dinosaurs can go extinct, then so can we.” England was 3 then. For his part, England says it wasn’t until he hit about 7 that he felt a sense of anxiety about “not knowing enough.” That anxiety would compel him through an almost comical list of academic bastions — Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and Princeton, and now, a 3-year-old teaching gig at MIT.
Still, God wasn’t a big player for England during most of his early life. While his mom is Jewish — his dad was raised Lutheran but never felt strongly about passing on his Protestant ties — there wasn’t a lot of religious talk while he was growing up. The Englands would share a festive meal for Passover and light candles for Hanukkah, but the family didn’t keep a Bible in the home. His mother, England says, was born in Poland in 1947 to a family ravaged by the Holocaust. Much of her extended family — including her grandparents — were killed by the Nazis, and in the wake of such destruction, England says, Judaism brought up negative, painful feelings for her; she distanced herself.
It seems ironic, then, that anti-Semitism would eventually push England to the faith he says his mother spurned. While studying at Oxford in the early 2000s, he faced his first anti-Israel sentiment from classmates — which got him, in expected fashion, reading books and picking people’s brains to figure out where he stood on the issue. And in 2005, he visited Israel for the first time — where he “fell in love.” Studying the Torah provided an opportunity for intellectual engagement that he says was “unlike anything I had ever experienced in terms of subtlety and grandeur of scope.”
Back in Palo Alto, between meeting with Berkeley professors and Stanford students, England reboots his computer to show me a simulation he’s been working on, meanwhile explaining that his lab is less test tubes and white coats than blackboards and computers screens. Jet-setting across the country to talk about his theories isn’t England’s usual routine. That, he says, looks more like dirty diapers, brainstorming atop a yoga ball with his infant son, working with students and plugging data into formulas.
England didn’t begin with number-crunching, though. During his postdoc research on embryonic development, he kept coming back to the question: What qualifies something as alive or not? He later superimposed an analytical rigor to that question, publishing an equation in 2013 about how much energy is required for self-replication to take place. For England, that investigation was only the beginning. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he says, his normally deep voice rising until eventually cracking. “It was so frustrating.” Over the next year, he worked on a second paper, which is under peer review now. This one took his past findings and used them to explain theoretically how, under certain physical circumstances, life could emerge from nonlife.
In the most basic terms, Darwinism and the idea of natural selection tell us that well-adapted organisms evolve in order to survive and better reproduce in their environment. England doesn’t dispute this reasoning, but he argues that it’s too vague. For instance, he says, blue whales and phytoplankton thrive in the same environmental conditions — the ocean — but they do so by vastly different means. That’s because that while they’re both made of the same basic building blocks, strings of DNA are arranged differently in each organism.
Now take England’s simulation of an opera singer who holds a crystal glass and sings at a certain pitch. Instead of shattering, England predicts that over time, the atoms will rearrange themselves to better absorb the energy the singer’s voice projects, essentially protecting the glass’s livelihood. So how’s a glass distinct from, say, a plankton-type organism that rearranges it self over several generations? Does that make glass a living organism?
These are pretty things to ponder. Unfortunately, England’s work hasn’t yet provided any answers, leaving the professor in a kind of speculative state as he doggedly tries to put numbers to it all. “He hasn’t put enough cards on the table yet,” Franck says. “He’ll need to make more testable predictions.” So it remains to be seen where England will land in the end. Other scientists have made similar claims about energy dissipation in the context of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, but none has found a definitive means for applying this science to the origin of life.
So what does God have to do with all this? In his quest for answers, England, of course, finds himself at the center of the classic struggle between science and spirituality. While Christianity and Darwinism are generally opposed, Judaism doesn’t take issue with the science of life. The Rabbinical Council of America even takes the stance that “evolutionary theory, properly understood, is not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator.”
For his part, England believes science can give us explanations and predictions, but it can never tell us what we should do with that information. That’s where, he says, the religious teachings come in. Indeed, the man who’s one-upping Darwin has spent the past 10 years painstakingly combing through the Torah, interpreting it word by word much the way he ponders the meaning of life. His conclusion? Common translations are lacking. Take the term “creation.” England suggests we understand it not as the literal making of the Earth but rather as giving Earth a name. All throughout the Bible, he says, there are examples of terms that could be interpreted differently from what we’ve come to accept as standard.
That even applies to some of the good book’s most famous players, like Joseph, the ancient biblical interpreter of dreams, who rose to become the most powerful man in Egypt after the pharaoh. Maybe, England suggests, he wasn’t a fortune-teller. Maybe he was a scientist.