Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
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13-04-2014, 05:25 PM
Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
I am posting this in the philosophy section because, even though it deals with a few scientific notions, I will be asking a question about the implications derived from such notions.

I would say that the majority of things a normal person encounters on a daily basis are complex arrangements of chemical units generally called “atoms”, although I find that term misleading because “atoms” are not atomic. “Atoms” themselves are arrangements of simpler structures and it is worth asking how those structures become arranged into complex “atoms”.

The answer, apparently, lies in the stars. Not in the pattern of bright dots that may be joined together forming the image of a… bear? (are you fucking kidding me?) but in the massive objects that only faintly illuminate our night skies, yet very brightly during the daytime. Much of the radiation that eventually reach us from our nearby star is released, at a prior stage, by some physical fusion reaction between light chemical elements yielding a heavier element. One such reaction appears to be the proton-proton chain reaction, through which hydrogen is fused together into helium.

The reaction occurs in several steps in which matter is rearranged and energy is released. The first transformation involves the fusion of two protons. A large percentage of any star’s mass is in the form of hydrogen “atoms”, which are electrically neutral structures comprising one positively charged proton and one negatively charged electron. At the high temperatures of a star’s core, those “atoms” are ionised; i.e., the proton and the electron move independently of each other.

Normally, when two protons become close enough to interact with one another, they soon move away from each other without further consequences for either of them. But every once in many interactions, the collision happens in such a way that one of the protons is transformed into a neutron (that remains attached to the other proton), a neutrino that moves away at a large speed and a positron that also moves away, but not as quickly.

The structure formed by the proton and the neutron is the nucleus of a heavier type of hydrogen often referred to as deuterium, and it is fairly stable because of the energy lost away in the transformation. The fast neutrino is very stable too, because its tiny mass and neutral electric charge prevent it from having significant interactions with many other structures. The positron, a particle with the mass of an electron but the electric charge of a proton, might be stable if it were surrounded by antiprotons and other positrons, but it is very unstable when it is surrounded by protons and electrons, because as soon as it encounters one of the latter (which is likely to happen soon, considering that electrons are attracted to positrons by their opposite electric charge) they will both disintegrate into a pair of gamma ray photons that move away at the speed of… well, photons.

A nucleus of deuterium may interact with another proton nearby, forming a more complex structure (the nucleus of the light helium-3 isotope) that is relatively stable due to the release of another gamma ray photon in the interaction. This structure can in turn interact with other structures in the vicinity (protons, deuterium nuclei, helium-3 nuclei, etc.) yielding even more complex structures that may be stable in their surroundings: helium, lithium, beryllium, etc.

In general, I view stellar nucleosynthesis as a sequence of random interactions between material structures that result in rearrangements of matter, producing more complex structures that may be more or less stable depending on their environment. But hold on, I also view biological evolution as a sequence of random interactions between material structures that result in rearrangements of matter, producing more complex structures that may be more or less stable depending on their environment. Could it be that complexity in non-biological systems is also acquired through random variation and environmental selection of stable structures?

On the other hand, maybe “atoms” come out of a cosmic unicorn’s rectum, or something like that. What do you think?
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13-04-2014, 06:00 PM
RE: Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
Biological evolution never ends - at least so long as there is an environment biology can survive in. While stable biological constructs can endure for millenia, randomness is constant, inducing instabilities that force change.

The range of randomness and outcomes in sub-atomics is very limited. There hasn't been any "evolution" at that level for virtually the entire age of the universe. All its "evolution" probably ended when stars and galaxies formed for the first time. Also, I don't think the order of "complexity" at that level is comparable to biological complexity. Biological complexity has the potential to increase beyond the most complex thing we know of; I think energy/particle complexity is as complex as it can ever get, which isn't very.

But I'm just guessing - my knowledge of deep physics and biology is what I read from time to time in Scientific American - so if I'm incorrect hopefully other more informed minds will weigh in. I do think it's an interesting question.
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14-04-2014, 01:04 AM
RE: Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
Hello Airportkid, thanks for raising a few valid points. I cannot say I profoundly disagree with you, although I don’t see how what you’ve said excludes what I suggested.

Biological evolution “never” ends (considering the current expanding behaviour of the universe, I’d be surprised if it went on forever, but I agree that is not just something that happened in the past; biological evolution still happens today). What about stellar nucleosynthesis? It still happens today and it will most likely happen for as long as there is enough energy in the stars, and enough light chemical elements, to sustain physical fusion reactions.

Stable biological constructs can endure for millenia, and even more so do many of the products of stellar nucleosynthesis.

Randomness is constant, inducing instabilities that force change; a description that can be applied both to biological constructs (for example the molecules of DNA that change from generation to generation, from individual to individual) and stellar nucleosynthesis constructs (two protons change into a deuterium nucleus, a deuterium nucleus and a proton change into a nucleus of helium-3, two nuclei of helium-3 change into a nucleus of helium-4 and a proton, and so on).

If by “evolution” we mean any sequence of random interactions that result in an increased complexity through the environmental selection of stable products, I don’t think it can be said that there hasn’t been any “evolution” at the level below “atomic” particles for almost the entire age of the universe, because stellar nucleosynthesis happens in the present. Today, a little proportion of the sun’s remaining hydrogen will be fused into heavier chemical elements (more complex structures). True, it is very unlikely that those reactions will yield a new arrangement of matter that we have not encountered before, however that is not because stellar nucleosynthesis does not happen today, but because of the narrow range of stable constructs that can be achieved by the combination of structures simpler than an “atom”. The higher complexity an “atom” has, the more energy it contains and the more unstable it becomes. The heaviest elements generally have a larger tendency to become disintegrated into simpler structures than the lightest elements.

But I haven’t referred to stellar nucleosynthesis as evolution; I have simply described both stellar nucleosynthesis and biological evolution as sequences of random transformations and environmental selection of stable structures. For example, the interaction between protons in the first stage of the proton-proton chain reaction occurs due to their random motion, and some of its products (deuterium nucleus) are more stable in their environment than others (positron). Can stellar nucleosynthesis not be described as a sequence of random transformations and environmental selection of stable products?

Of course, the complexity achieved through stellar nucleosynthesis is many orders of magnitude smaller than the complexity achieved through biological evolution, if only because stellar nucleosynthesis is happening at the level of “atoms” and simpler structures, whereas biological evolution is happening at levels of complexity from “atoms” onwards, and the range of stable forms that can be achieved through the combination of “atoms” is much, much greater than the range of stable chemical elements.

So if you thought I was saying that evolution can create new chemical elements, or something along those lines, I apologise, that is not what I meant. All I am saying is that complexity below the level of structure of “atoms” also seems to be gained through random interactions and environmental selection of stable products. But that is what it seems from my point of view, not necessarily an objective truth. If it does not seem to be the case in your view, then I may very well be mistaken. Just in case, I do not recommend that you believe anything I’ve said. But I do hope that you understand it.

In any case, thanks for reading it. Enjoy your day!
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15-04-2014, 03:58 AM
RE: Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
(13-04-2014 05:25 PM)living thing Wrote:  ...
On the other hand, maybe “atoms” come out of a cosmic unicorn’s rectum, or something like that. What do you think?

I see no evidence for the latter.

Are you seeking a universal / common parlance for biological and non-biological processes?

Why not? It's what we monkeys are good at.

I seek it too. And I have posted about it before (somewhere).

If cosmology-physics-chemistry-biochemistry-biology is a continuum then there are 'rules' that apply continually.

I think I have settled on 'grow' and 'divide' as the simplest terms to cover it... applying to stars, humans, businesses, everything.

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15-04-2014, 02:14 PM
RE: Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
(15-04-2014 03:58 AM)DLJ Wrote:  Are you seeking a universal / common parlance for biological and non-biological processes?
I thought processes had to have purposes, that's why I've avoided the word in this thread so far.

I'm not sure what a universal / common parlance for biological and non-biological processes is, but I wouldn't say I was seeking it; it was more that I bumped into the notion. I never thought "I'll learn about stellar nucleosynthesis, see if it can be said to be another instance of random variation and environmental selection" but, rather, when I learned about stellar nucleosynthesis I thought "Wow! Structures become assembled randomly and it is the environment what eventually determines how stable they are, just like in living beings. Cool!" In fact, I only started using the expression "environmental selection" after that event, because not only it allows me to encompass non-biological processes (even if purposeless) as well as biological processes, but I also find it easier to understand that there is a real environment than an abstract nature.

(15-04-2014 03:58 AM)DLJ Wrote:  I think I have settled on 'grow' and 'divide' as the simplest terms to cover it... applying to stars, humans, businesses, everything.
I'm not sure how stars divide. Is it that they divide into enormous numbers of tiny but very energetic particles that are irradiated away? Or do they divide when they collide against something comparatively massive?

Monkey-greetings!
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15-04-2014, 03:46 PM
RE: Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
(15-04-2014 02:14 PM)living thing Wrote:  
(15-04-2014 03:58 AM)DLJ Wrote:  Are you seeking a universal / common parlance for biological and non-biological processes?
I thought processes had to have purposes, that's why I've avoided the word in this thread so far.

I'm not sure what a universal / common parlance for biological and non-biological processes is, but I wouldn't say I was seeking it; it was more that I bumped into the notion. I never thought "I'll learn about stellar nucleosynthesis, see if it can be said to be another instance of random variation and environmental selection" but, rather, when I learned about stellar nucleosynthesis I thought "Wow! Structures become assembled randomly and it is the environment what eventually determines how stable they are, just like in living beings. Cool!" In fact, I only started using the expression "environmental selection" after that event, because not only it allows me to encompass non-biological processes (even if purposeless) as well as biological processes, but I also find it easier to understand that there is a real environment than an abstract nature.

(15-04-2014 03:58 AM)DLJ Wrote:  I think I have settled on 'grow' and 'divide' as the simplest terms to cover it... applying to stars, humans, businesses, everything.
I'm not sure how stars divide. Is it that they divide into enormous numbers of tiny but very energetic particles that are irradiated away? Or do they divide when they collide against something comparatively massive?

Monkey-greetings!

I think you are over-reaching. Stars undergo (statistically) predictable changes based largely on their masses and close proximity to another star. The nucleosynthesis process is even more predictable.

Biological evolution is not, primarily due to random mutation. There is no parallel to this in stellar life cycles.

Skepticism is not a position; it is an approach to claims.
Science is not a subject, but a method.
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15-04-2014, 04:14 PM
RE: Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
Hello Chas, thanks for joining in.

(15-04-2014 03:46 PM)Chas Wrote:  I think you are over-reaching. Stars undergo (statistically) predictable changes based largely on their masses and close proximity to another star. The nucleosynthesis process is even more predictable.

Biological evolution is not, primarily due to random mutation. There is no parallel to this in stellar life cycles.
I am not sure if that message is directed to me, because I have not mentioned stellar "life" cycles, and I am not even sure the term "life" can be accurately applied to the existence of a star; I am not sure the star is able to extract information from its interactions with other existing entities and use that information in order to increase its own structural stability. I am more inclined to consider stars as lifeless entities, but I may be wrong so please don't take my word for it.

Do the interactions between light chemical elements that happen inside a star, as those elements become fused into heavier elements, not occur at random? Is there a non-random force directing the motion of some protons against other protons in order to produce deuterium nuclei? And aren't the products of those interactions of variable stability in their environment? Can it not be said that complexity below the "atomic" level of structure arises through a purposeless process of random transformations and environmental selection of stable products?

Thanks for your view!
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15-04-2014, 04:42 PM
RE: Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
(15-04-2014 04:14 PM)living thing Wrote:  Hello Chas, thanks for joining in.

(15-04-2014 03:46 PM)Chas Wrote:  I think you are over-reaching. Stars undergo (statistically) predictable changes based largely on their masses and close proximity to another star. The nucleosynthesis process is even more predictable.

Biological evolution is not, primarily due to random mutation. There is no parallel to this in stellar life cycles.
I am not sure if that message is directed to me, because I have not mentioned stellar "life" cycles, and I am not even sure the term "life" can be accurately applied to the existence of a star; I am not sure the star is able to extract information from its interactions with other existing entities and use that information in order to increase its own structural stability. I am more inclined to consider stars as lifeless entities, but I may be wrong so please don't take my word for it.

Do the interactions between light chemical elements that happen inside a star, as those elements become fused into heavier elements, not occur at random? Is there a non-random force directing the motion of some protons against other protons in order to produce deuterium nuclei? And aren't the products of those interactions of variable stability in their environment? Can it not be said that complexity below the "atomic" level of structure arises through a purposeless process of random transformations and environmental selection of stable products?

Thanks for your view!

Nucleosynthesis is statistically non-random. The point about stellar life cycles is that nucleosynthesis is a result of them, based on stellar mass.

Since all protons are identical to all others and all neutrons are identical to all others, it doesn't matter which ones fuse to form heavier elements. There is no mutation or variation.

'Life cycle' does not imply that stars are alive - it is a metaphorical use.

Skepticism is not a position; it is an approach to claims.
Science is not a subject, but a method.
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15-04-2014, 11:45 PM (This post was last modified: 15-04-2014 11:59 PM by DLJ.)
RE: Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
(15-04-2014 02:14 PM)living thing Wrote:  
(15-04-2014 03:58 AM)DLJ Wrote:  Are you seeking a universal / common parlance for biological and non-biological processes?
I thought processes had to have purposes, that's why I've avoided the word in this thread so far.
...

Ah, yes. My bad. According to ISO15504. But that is related to documented processes. It has made me think as to whether this means biological processes are perhaps better referred to as systems but I have not reached a conclusion on this.
And even I did draw that conclusion, it would be trivial in that I would not be embarking upon a campaign to overthrow established usage.

Regarding 'division', I was thinking ... both.

Similarly, a business may diverge into smaller entities or sell off a division on the large scale but also in terms of production (growing/swelling by consuming raw materials and information and then dividing by selling off the end product.

Likewise for humans with inputs (food, information etc.) that create growth and then outputs (shit, sweat, knowledge, legacy etc.) but also the final division of our physical component parts.

I'm seeing this pattern (grow and divide and also the model of 'input-process-output') at all levels:
I see it in the galaxies.
I see it in chemical reactions
I see it in the hydro-thermal vents on the ocean's floor
I see it in symbiotic systems
I see it when we eat and shit and reproduce
I see it in fauna, flora and fora (forums)
I see it in businesses
I see it in religions
I see it in nations.

Chas, yes, it might be over-reaching but ...
well, I dunno. I'm just a monkey.

Weeping

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16-04-2014, 02:10 AM
RE: Random interactions, environmental stability and stellar nucleosynthesis
(15-04-2014 04:42 PM)Chas Wrote:  Nucleosynthesis is statistically non-random. The point about stellar life cycles is that nucleosynthesis is a result of them, based on stellar mass.

Since all protons are identical to all others and all neutrons are identical to all others, it doesn't matter which ones fuse to form heavier elements. There is no mutation or variation.

'Life cycle' does not imply that stars are alive - it is a metaphorical use.
Hello Chas, how are you?

Nucleosynthesis is not random; it is only the interactions that produce the temporary structures involved what are random. The result is not random because it is due to the environmental selection of structures that are stable. A nucleus of deuterium surrounded by an electron is fairly stable; a lot more than a positron surrounded by an electron. That is why positrons exist for much shorter periods than deuterium nuclei inside the sun.

Is stellar nucleosynthesis (the assembly of complex “atomic” nuclei inside a star) the result of stellar existence cycles, or are stellar existence cycles the result of nucleosynthesis? After all, it seems to be the energy released in those physical fusion reactions what prevents the star from gravitationally collapsing further onto itself. Or maybe not, I cannot say I know with certainty.

But I’m not talking about stellar existence cycles; I’ve only spoken of those in response to other posts in the thread. I am talking about the assembly of “atomic” structures; stars are just one context in which those physical fusion reactions may happen. A section of a hydrogen bomb might be a different context.

Since all adenosines are functionally identical to all others, and all guanosines are functionally identical to all others, and the same with cytidines and thymidines, it doesn’t matter which ones fuse to form complex genomes; I don’t see how your “objection” applies only to nucleosynthesis. But if two nuclei of helium-3 can transform into a nucleus of helium-4 and a separate proton, how can that change not be seen as a variation? How do you define “variation” if it is not in terms of change?

I don’t think we’re understanding each other; we might do if we used less metaphors.

But I thank you for sharing your view, though.
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