The origins of the universe is a contentious debate between scientists and theologians, but theoretical biophysicist, Rabbi Dr. Jeremy England of Brookline, Massachusetts doesn’t believe it has to be. Currently a senior director in artificial intelligence at GlaxoSmithKline, a principal research scientist at Georgia Tech, and an ordained Orthodox rabbi, England developed a hypothesis during his time as an associate professor of physics at MIT on the origins of life.
He calls it dissipation-driven adaptation, and the hypothesis holds that random groups of molecules can self-organize to more efficiently absorb and dissipate heat from the environment. His hypothesis states that such self-organizing systems are an inherent part of the physical world. This groundbreaking hypothesis got him dubbed “The Next Darwin” by numerous media outlets in 2015 after Pulitzer-Prize winning science historian Edward J. Larson said that if England can demonstrate his hypothesis to be true, “he could be the next Darwin.
His hypothesis caught someone else’s attention: author Dan Brown, of Da Vinci Code fame inserted a fictional character named Jeremy England who also a physicist who developed a dissipation-driven adaptation theory in his novel Origin. The fictional character was written as an atheist, which England did not very much appreciate and wrote up in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed.
England was always set on becoming a scientist and mastering secular subjects in school. Even though he did not grow up observant, he still had a “conscious sense of Jewish identity.” After graduating with a degree summa cum laude in Biochemical Sciences from Harvard in 2003, he was a Rhodes Scholar for two years before continuing on to complete his doctorate in physics at Stanford in 2009. He was also a Hertz fellow and named one of Forbes “30 Under 30 Rising Stars of Science.”
Seeing a strong anti-Israel sentiment during his time at Oxford caused England to give his relationship to Judaism a deeper look. “I reached a point in life where I [started] reflecting and speculating a bit.” Jeremy visited Israel, learned Hebrew, and studied Torah, which tickled his curiosity even more.
That was when the desire to grasp the world using a Torah lens was born. He dove deeper into the relationship between the physical and metaphysical aspects of life. Once he was venturing down this new path, he needed to reconcile the relationship between science and Torah. Every Life is on Fire, his new book, is the culmination of that quest. “It was very much me following my own excitement to understand how it all fits together.”
England loved finding ways to explain how various physical phenomena are simply different expressions of the same idea (since everything is derived from Hashem). There is a theoretical unification, as England expresses “[an] elegant simplicity of how you unify different things” within the world that fascinates him. His work as a multi-disciplinary scientist is rewarding, but it doesn’t reveal where life comes. He explains, “because you just take the fact of life’s existence for granted and try to figure out what makes it tick.” He expounds upon this in his book, where he explores Biblical topics, statistical physics and the boundary between living and non-living matter.
One of the most famous events recorded in the Torah is the burning bush (Exodus) and the signs that occur throughout the Jewish people’s wanderings in the desert with Moshe as their leader. England uses science as his main tool to analyze these Biblical stories and its many dimensions. He hopes that readers can then apply the same thought process throughout their daily lives, and therefore have Torah as a tool to explain the physical world.
“As I’ve understood the physics better of what I was working on, I was beginning to notice things in Torah that sounded like commentaries on some of the same ideas if you read them in the right way.” The creation of the book and its approach required much caution due to those who deny the harmonious coexistence of Torah and science/spirituality and physicality.
England strongly believes that science and Torah are inseparable working parts of the universe. While physics illuminates the origins of matter, Torah asks how the natural elements/physical composition of the world manifests, as well as the why and how we should go about utilizing them. England designed the book in a way that people from all kinds of educational and spiritual backgrounds can understand and appreciate this inseparable relationship.