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Previous Programs

2018 Agency in the Physical World
Awardees; RFP download

2016 Physics of the Observer
Awardees; RFP download

2015 The Physics of What Happens
Awardees; RFP download

2013 Physics of Information
Awardees; RFP download

2010 The Nature of Time
Awardees; RFP download

2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

Robert Phillips
California Institute of Technology


Matt Thomson, California Institute of Technology

Project Title

Agency in Living Matter: The Physics of “Molecular Vitalism”

Project Summary

One of the most iconic videos ever taken using a microscope features a neutrophil, a cell that patrols our bodies as part of its immune system, in pursuit of its bacterial quarry. The video is also an iconic example of agency in biology. The neutrophil senses chemical signals and acts through directed motion to achieve its goal, annihilation of a bacterial intruder. Though this video is usually thought of as illustrating a biological problem, in fact, agency within the neutrophil is an entirely physical and chemical phenomenon: molecules inside the cell process information and, then, convert chemical fuel, ATP, into physical motion across hundreds of microns. While living matter provides a stunning example of agency as a physical and molecular phenomenon, how goals and actions can arise in a physical system governed by seemingly agent-less natural law is poorly understood. Agency must be studied as a fundamentally non-equilibrium phenomenon because `action' requires the conversion of raw forms of energy (like ATP) into directed work (e.g. force, flow) to serve the 'goals' of a controller. Therefore, agency is fundamentally a problem in the control of non-equilibrium physical systems, a field at the frontier of current understanding.

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