Jeremy England on Biology, Thermodynamics, and the Bible

Erwin Schrödinger’s famous book What Is Life? highlighted the connections between physics, and thermodynamics in particular, and the nature of living beings. But the exact connections between living organisms and the flow of heat and entropy remains a topic of ongoing research. Jeremy England is a leader in this field, deriving connections between thermodynamic relations and the processes of life. He is also an ordained rabbi who finds resonances between modern science and passages in the Hebrew Bible. We talk about it all, from entropy fluctuation theorems to how scientists should approach religion

Jeremy England received his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. He is currently Senior Director in the Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning group at GlaxoSmithKline. He has been a Rhodes scholar, a Hertz fellow, and was named one of Forbes‘s “30 Under 30 Rising Stars of Science.” His new book is Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things.

This is on an audio recording which is about 1 /1/2 hour. The parts about the bible start at 1:04


Jeremy England seems like a very interesting guy. Haven’t listened to the podcast, but found this fascinating interview about him:

He is a scientist who is an orthodox Jew, and seems very conversant in the Hebrew Bible. And he connects science with it in interesting ways which are different from most Christian scientists or theologians I’ve read:

Does your work require us to rethink the boundary between that which is alive and that which is not alive?

I don’t have an agenda to change the way we use the word “alive.” We basically know. Fish are alive, rocks are not alive. Border cases, like viruses (an example used by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen), don’t eliminate the reality of a well-defined category. The possibility of moving the boundary is fascinating to people because it could change our relationship to things on one or the other side.

That question has in fact always fascinated. I think about the otot [signs] given to Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses], which can be read in many ways. One of the things that they definitely all are about is the boundary between life and nonlife. You start with this living tree or plant, the sneh , which is encased in a fire that does not consume it, which is this kind of contradiction. It should be on the brink of falling apart and turning into smoke, but it lives. And then turning a stick into a snake is turning something that is not alive into something that is alive. Moshe’s tzara’at [skin diseasef] is a disruption in the very boundary of a living thing, an instability in that boundary, and it is a kind of thing that references the boundary between life and death. And the last, which is most clear of all, is that you take the water and dirt of the Nile and you get dam , blood, the sine qua non of life, and it comes simply from the combination of things you don’t think of as being alive.

I should probably mention that I actually just struck a deal with Basic Books to write a book about my research for a trade audience that will interweave a close reading of Moshe’s encounter with the burning bush with a careful rumination on the boundary between life and nonlife.

(Here is the book mentioned, just published a month ago, now on my reading list!)

And I don’t mean to denigrate [compartmentalizing science and religion], but to me, I don’t want to have a divided mind. It has to be acknowledged that Tanakh is not trying to keep you comfortable with the idea of natural law, it is trying to make you uncomfortable with the idea of fixed, natural laws. That’s at least one current within it. (There are other ones that are countercurrents. There is also the Psalmist’s idea of mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai kulam be-chochma asita [how many are the things you have made, O Lord; you have made them all with wisdom]—the idea that Hashem made everything in wisdom and it has all this natural order and regularity to it. So, there are these currents in tension with one another.) But papering over that tension and saying, “It’s easy, we don’t have to worry about it”—that can come at a cost.

I think it’s also possible to be very committed to Torah in ways that are very authentic and ancient, and still be fully committed to scientific reasoning. I see a lot of people who have a great desire to act on a commitment to Yahadut and their tradition, but they also put a box on it that comes from outside the tradition. That which is kosher according to theoretical physics or biology—that I can think and do. There’s a real, serious danger there, especially in an era when a lot of people are going off the deep end and turning science into not just a way of reasoning about what is predictable about the world, but into a full-blown belief system that has a mystical component to it.

Science is, for some, a religion?

Yes, and it can get very doctrinaire. Here’s an example. Someone might say, “The rules of the universe are fundamentally mathematical and probabilistic. Furthermore, there is a very parsimonious mathematical theory that is the explanation of everything, and we are just trying to refine our understanding of that model. But the universe is mathematical.” That is, in a sense, a mystical claim. It is beautiful and nourishes the souls of people who devote themselves to it. And it’s a very common devotion in my line of work.

But I staunchly reject that way of talking, because I think the laws of physics are human contrivances. And that might sound like a radical statement, but what I mean is that the world has things about it which are predictable, and we can propose to model it, but those models are our constructions. This doesn’t mean they are untrue, but we need to have more humility and say that we simply try to understand what is predictable about the world.

I think that the discipline of holding onto Torah and keeping your feet planted there first and foremost and remaining well-fastened in that sense, as Rav Soloveitchik might say, leaves one open to the full depth of scientific inquiry, but also gives one a much clearer and more precise understanding of the potential of that inquiry and also its epistemological limitations.


Listened to the podcast yesterday and was going to post it myself. Super interesting conversation. Him and Carroll also go over the topic of him being an orthodox Jew and how he sees the relationship between his faith and him being a scientist.


Totally agree. But I don’t see how Torah or Tanakh is useful in taking this position.

Does anyone have a clue about what that means?

This article, drawn from England’s new book Every Life Is One Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origin of Living Things (Basic Books, 2020), may be of interest:

England is paying a cost for his outspoken theism. If you go to Amazon, and look at the reviews thus far of the new book, one-star pans are nearly as frequent as five-star praise. The pans are brutal. Interestingly, the same “bi-modal” distribution of reader reviews is often seen in Amazon reviews of ID books. Readers love ID books; readers loathe ID books. Not much in the middle.

1 Like

This is typical for everything from book to movie and game reviews. People seem to always pick extremes. If they don’t like a movie or game, it’s 0 or 1 star out of 10. If they like it, it’s 9 or 10 stars. Most people do that with most votes clustering around the extremes. I don’t know why it’s like that, and certainly an interesting phenomenon, but it’s in no way unique to reviews of pro-ID books (of which England’s is of course not among).

I believe it is hyperbole.

In this case he may be getting “U-ed” from both sides.

I definitely noticed this when listening to videos with theoretical physicist talk about the state of their field - and individually especially when it comes to their purposed theories of everything.

This is akin to what Sabine Hossenfelder likes to say from what I’ve listened to her. At least she keeps them in check.

Hyperbole on whose part? The part of those hailing him as the next Darwin (in which case, who are they?) or of those claiming that he’s been hailed?

You expect me to know these things??

You expressed an opinion, and I assumed it was an informed one.

Every thoughtful physicist I know agrees that scientific theories are human constructions, and does not think the universe is mathematical. Mathematics is a handy tool for physics, but it is not physics. And there are, for example, geometries that describe universes other than ours.

The little piece of mine I linked here a few days ago on facts, theories and laws goes into these ideas in more depth.

1 Like

There’s a variety of views that can be taken on that one. I predict theoretical physicists have a tendency to think the universe is mathematical, while experimental physicists probably think things like atoms are real.

Are atoms not real? :sweat_smile:

I think I know hyperbole when I see it, that’s all.

It’s a fascinating discussion in philosophy of science.

We can’t observe atoms directly with our senses, because they’re too tiny. That means essentially we have to infer their characteristics from the results of experiments.

‘Realists’ in philosophy of science believe that the entities we name - protons, neutrons, electrons and so on - are real and exist in the world.

‘Idealists’ believe that those names essentially apply to ‘characteristics of the world that make it respond to our experiments as it does’, but are not convinced that it makes sense to reify (‘thingify’) those characteristics as actual objects in reality.

(this is, obviously, a 2-sentence and very brief and simple description of a conversation that has led to hundreds of thousands of words of discussion in books and papers over many decades)