Foundations of carbon-based life leave little room for error

Mar 13, 2013
Light quark mass determines carbon and oxygen production and the viability of carbon-based life. Credit: Dean Lee, NC State University. Images of Earth and Mercury courtesy of NASA.

Life as we know it is based upon the elements of carbon and oxygen. Now a team of physicists, including one from North Carolina State University, is looking at the conditions necessary to the formation of those two elements in the universe. They've found that when it comes to supporting life, the universe leaves very little margin for error.

Both and oxygen are produced when helium burns inside of giant red stars. Carbon-12, an essential element we're all made of, can only form when three alpha particles, or helium-4 nuclei, combine in a very specific way. The key to formation is an of carbon-12 known as the Hoyle state, and it has a very specific energy – measured at 379 keV (or 379,000 ) above the energy of three alpha particles. Oxygen is produced by the combination of another alpha particle and carbon.

NC State physicist Dean Lee and German colleagues Evgeny Epelbaum, Hermann Krebs, Timo Laehde and Ulf-G. Meissner had previously confirmed the existence and structure of the Hoyle state with a numerical lattice that allowed the researchers to simulate how protons and neutrons interact. These protons and neutrons are made up of called quarks. The light quark mass is one of the fundamental parameters of nature, and this mass affects particles' energies.

In new lattice calculations done at the Juelich Supercomputer Centre the found that just a slight variation in the light quark mass will change the energy of the Hoyle state, and this in turn would affect the production of carbon and oxygen in such a way that life as we know it wouldn't exist.

"The Hoyle state of carbon is key," Lee says. "If the Hoyle state energy was at 479 keV or more above the three , then the amount of carbon produced would be too low for carbon-based life.

"The same holds true for oxygen," he adds. "If the Hoyle state energy were instead within 279 keV of the three alphas, then there would be plenty of carbon. But the stars would burn their helium into carbon much earlier in their life cycle. As a consequence, the stars would not be hot enough to produce sufficient oxygen for life. In our lattice simulations, we find that more than a 2 or 3 percent change in the light would lead to problems with the abundance of either carbon or oxygen in the universe."

The researchers' findings appear in Physical Review Letters.

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More information: "Viability of carbon-based life as a function of the light quark mass" by Dean Lee, North Carolina State University; Evgeny Epelbaum and Hermann Krebs, Institut fuer Theoretische Physik II, Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum, Germany; Timo A. Laehde, Forschungszentrum Juelich, Germany; Ulf-G. Meissner, Helmholtz-Institut fuer Strahlen-und Kernphysik and Bethe Center for Theoretical Physics, Universitaet Bonn, Germany, March 13, 2013 in Physical Review Letters

Abstract
The Hoyle state plays a crucial role in the helium burning of stars that have reached the red giant stage. The close proximity of this state to the triple-alpha threshold is needed for the production of carbon, oxygen, and other elements necessary for life. We investigate whether this life-essential condition is robust or delicately fine-tuned by measuring its dependence on the fundamental constants of nature, specifically the light quark mass and the strength of the electromagnetic interaction. We show that there exist strong correlations between the alpha particle binding energy and the various energies relevant to the triple-alpha process. We derive limits on the variation of these fundamental parameters from the requirement that sufficient amounts of carbon and oxygen be generated in stars. We also discuss the implications of our results for an anthropic view of the Universe.

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User comments : 24

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rod_russell_9
1 / 5 (8) Mar 13, 2013
This makes evolution of life from slime all the more amazing!
Tausch
1 / 5 (9) Mar 13, 2013
This is the "magnitude of information content" that information theory provides. Information undergoes no evolution. Science will never be at a loss for information. Independent of physical or metaphysical theory or the scope/range needed for physical or metaphysical theory.
dogbert
1.5 / 5 (15) Mar 13, 2013
It is always instructive and surprising how finely tuned the universe is for the existence of life as we know it.

The Hoyle state energy is just another confirmation that this universe is finely tuned for our existence.
Tausch
1.3 / 5 (8) Mar 13, 2013
The "magnitude of information content" here is "the conditions necessary to the formation of those two elements."

There will be no content shortage ever. There will always be a shortage of the meaning sense information provides.
Tausch
1 / 5 (9) Mar 13, 2013
"The Hoyle state energy " is the "state" provided by the "magnitude of information content". The is no balance equation for information or 'net' content.
ValeriaT
2.3 / 5 (9) Mar 13, 2013
Light quark mass determines carbon and oxygen production and the viability of carbon-based life
This is similar stance like the stance of shark, which speculates, that the water density must be adjusted well to the density of his body - or he couldn't swim in it without bladder.
Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2013
Barrow & Tipler (1988) 4.6 A New Perspective pp 250 - 258 on absorption resonances.
Tausch
1 / 5 (9) Mar 13, 2013
"stance" and "speculation" is the "magnitude of information content". There can be no shortage on what information provides.

The "magnitude of information content" provided the following:

"...that the water density must be adjusted well to the density of his body - or he couldn't swim in it without bladder." independent of the sense and/or meaning wrt to any or all of the rest of the sciences.

Information is an absolute not a constant.
Information is independent of a frame of reference.

Tausch
1 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2013
Information theory provides a "magnitude of information content".
Accounting for experiment and theoretical data. Independent from the outcomes of experiment or theory.
Pressure2
3.6 / 5 (14) Mar 13, 2013
It is always instructive and surprising how finely tuned the universe is for the existence of life as we know it.

The Hoyle state energy is just another confirmation that this universe is finely tuned for our existence.

Another way of looking at this is we were finely tuned by our universe.
VendicarE
3.3 / 5 (10) Mar 13, 2013
Claptrap.

"They've found that when it comes to supporting life, the universe leaves very little margin for error." - Article.

All of material existence seems to take place on a chaotic boundary where there is sufficient stability to maintain "things" and where there is sufficient chaos to keep those things reacting with each other.

Almost any non-linear boundary between two or more competing factors will produce patters of chaotic competition at some scale of length.

The failure of the researchers is their presumption that there is only one kind of material existence, and it is comprised of the elementary particles that make up our universe.

Their view is biased because they do not include all of the other ways in which patterns of existence can come together at some scale to produce self replication among those patterns.

Life need not be based on carbon. It need not be based on matter at all, and it is folly to pontificate on the uniqueness of life based on the a bad assumption
Tausch
1 / 5 (6) Mar 13, 2013
A 'state' has the ability to 'act'. This 'ability'(potential)is a state. Provided by the "magnitude of information content".

A magnitude of zero (zero potential) (or zero probability) does not remove or reduce the information content or state.
typicalguy
3.9 / 5 (7) Mar 13, 2013
This line of thinking is nonsense. Life as we know it can only develop in our universe. Well......NO DUH! Life not suited for our universe isn't here and life suited for our universe wouldn't be in one suited for a different kind of life.
Parsec
4.4 / 5 (9) Mar 13, 2013
This analysis follows other findings regarding the incredibly narrow range for the fine structure constant and other fundamental constants of nature to be consistent with carbon-based life to be possible. This isn't just about life as we know it. The ability for any atom to form polymers with itself is unique to carbon, and that property cannot be replicated by any other element.
VendicarE
2.6 / 5 (9) Mar 13, 2013
What makes you think that atoms are needed for life to develop?

"This analysis follows other findings regarding the incredibly narrow range for the fine structure constant" - Parsec
Skepticus
1 / 5 (5) Mar 14, 2013
Summary of article: We are here, because conditions were by chance particularly narrowed to values that lead to our existence, so that now we have the chance to say that the right conditions were so and so. End of story!
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (5) Mar 14, 2013
...The ability for any atom to form polymers with itself is unique to carbon, and that property cannot be replicated by any other element.

This is a fact I was not aware of. However, it leads to a pretty simple conclusion of - if there IS other life in this Universe, it will most likely be carbon-based mostly bags of water. And due to the physics proven rules of complex system interaction, will more than likely be evolutionarily similar to us. But - what do I know...
Whydening Gyre
2.1 / 5 (7) Mar 14, 2013
What makes you think that atoms are needed for life to develop?


I believe he just meant "Life as we interpret it", based on our only samples of what we have to observe - ourselves...
Szkeptik
2 / 5 (4) Mar 14, 2013
This is like saying if Pi were just a little smaller, circles would be impossible.
h0dges
5 / 5 (1) Mar 14, 2013
The ability for any atom to form polymers with itself is unique to carbon, and that property cannot be replicated by any other element.

...ahem:
http://en.wikiped...phazene)
(no carbon)

More generally:
http://en.wikiped..._polymer
Egleton
1 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2013
This makes evolution of life from slime all the more amazing

Yeah. And then it all culminated in Me. Makes you think doesn't it.
Modernmystic
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2013
Life need not be based on carbon. It need not be based on matter at all, and it is folly to pontificate on the uniqueness of life based on the a bad assumption.


While I agree with your general sentiment strictly speaking we have no framework to say it to be based on anything else. It's just as bad an assumption that it COULD be based on something else other than carbon or not even on matter at all.

It's plausible that life might be based on anything at all, but there's absolutely no reason to BELIEVE this any more than the universe was finely tuned for our existence.
Whydening Gyre
1 / 5 (5) Mar 16, 2013
The ability for any atom to form polymers with itself is unique to carbon, and that property cannot be replicated by any other element.

...ahem:
http://en.wikiped...phazene)

Dang, Hodges. Now my whole assumptive comment is thrown into disarray...
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Mar 16, 2013
This is a nice example of anthropic selection if it exists, but not of finetuning. As always, the "finetuned" constants are seen to be variable over orders of magnitude if you choose ratios to covary. So the ratios we see may be selected by anthropicity, but no isolated parameter is finetuned.

Here, the Hoyle state is known to be the dominant but not the exclusive pathway to fuse carbon to higher Z elements. There is a pressure-temperature zone in red giants that produce it as well, meaning the balanced situation devolves into a single "finetuning" (for, say, oxygen). And that is as noted above no actual finetuning at all.

As for carbon, its versatility and abundance speaks for its likelihood for basing cells on.

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