How did life begin? What sort of process can turn a complex mixture of chemicals into a genuinely living organism? The origin of life remains one of the great outstanding mysteries of science. At the heart of the enigma lies a deep conceptual mismatch between the realms of physics and chemistry, which are cast in the language of matter, energy and forces, and the realm of biology, which is described in the informational terms of genetic instructions, signals and codes. Decades of research into life’s emergence have focused on the chemical substrate – the hardware. But the key to life’s distinctive qualities lies with the organization and management of information – the software. In my lecture I will describe attempts to shift the problem of life’s origin from chemistry to information theory and complexity theory. Although we may never have a blow-by-blow account of life’s murky beginnings, a great deal hinges on the answer. If life emerges readily in earthlike conditions, then it may have started many times on Earth, raising the tantalizing prospect that a shadow biosphere of alternative life forms interpenetrates the known biosphere. But if life is a bizarre statistical fluke, then we may be alone in the universe.

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