WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Because this guy could change the way we think about evolution — and faith.
On a sunny afternoon, at a bustling cafe less than a mile from Stanford University’s Palo Alto campus and more than 5,000 miles from his home, an assistant professor from MIT is telling me about science. Very advanced science. His name is Jeremy England, and at 33, he’s already being called the next Charles Darwin.
In town to give a lecture, the Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar speaks quickly, his voice rising a few pitches in tone, his long-fingered hands making sudden jerks when he’s excited. He’s skinny, with a long face, scraggly beard and carelessly groomed mop of sandy brown hair — what you might expect from a theoretical physicist. But then there’s the street-style Adidas on his feet and the kippah atop his head. And the fact that this scientist also talks a lot about God.
The 101 version of his big idea is this: Under the right conditions, a random group of atoms will self-organize, unbidden, to more effectively use energy. Over time and with just the right amount of, say, sunlight, a cluster of atoms could come remarkably close to what we call life. In fact, here’s a thought: Some things we consider inanimate actually may already be “alive.” It all depends on how we define life, something England’s work might prompt us to reconsider. “People think of the origin of life as being a rare process,” says Vijay Pande, a Stanford chemistry professor. “Jeremy’s proposal makes life a consequence of physical laws, not something random.”
England’s idea may sound strange, even incredible, but it’s drawn the attention of an impressive posse of high-level academics. After all, while Darwinism may explain evolution and the complex world we live in today, it doesn’t account for the onset of intelligent beings. England’s insistence on probing for the step that preceded all of our current assumptions about life is what makes him stand out, says Carl Franck, a Cornell physics professor, who’s been following England’s work closely. “Every 30 years or so we experience these gigantic steps forward,” Franck says. “We’re due for one. And this might be it.”
And all from a modern Orthodox Jew with fancy sneakers.
Before England became a religious man — he prays three times a day — he was a scientist. From the time he could read, he devoured books on subjects from philosophy to music to fantasy. By 9 he was plowing his way through Stephen Hawking’s opus, A Brief History of Time . “He couldn’t comprehend it, but he tried really hard,” says his father, Richard England, an economics professor at the University of New Hampshire. Yes, Dad is an economics professor and Mom a public school teacher, and the couple took their two children to museums and to visit the Harvard campus, just a few hours from their small seacoast town. But the elder England contends his son’s upbringing doesn’t begin to explain his intellectual curiosity.
Or England’s long timeline of asking big questions. Over drinks some years ago, a childhood friend reminded him of a time that young Jeremy turned to him out of nowhere and reflected: “You know, Adam, if the dinosaurs can go extinct, then so can we.” England was 3 then. For his part, England says it wasn’t until he hit about 7 that he felt a sense of anxiety about “not knowing enough.” That anxiety would compel him through an almost comical list of academic bastions — Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and Princeton, and now, a 3-year-old teaching gig at MIT.
Still, God wasn’t a big player for England during most of his early life. While his mom is Jewish — his dad was raised Lutheran but never felt strongly about passing on his Protestant ties — there wasn’t a lot of religious talk while he was growing up. The Englands would share a festive meal for Passover and light candles for Hanukkah, but the family didn’t keep a Bible in the home. His mother, England says, was born in Poland in 1947 to a family ravaged by the Holocaust. Much of her extended family — including her grandparents — were killed by the Nazis, and in the wake of such destruction, England says, Judaism brought up negative, painful feelings for her; she distanced herself.
It seems ironic, then, that anti-Semitism would eventually push England to the faith he says his mother spurned. While studying at Oxford in the early 2000s, he faced his first anti-Israel sentiment from classmates — which got him, in expected fashion, reading books and picking people’s brains to figure out where he stood on the issue. And in 2005, he visited Israel for the first time — where he “fell in love.” Studying the Torah provided an opportunity for intellectual engagement that he says was “unlike anything I had ever experienced in terms of subtlety and grandeur of scope.”
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