Lyfe (Pronounced “loif”).

Philip Ball writes for the Observer about the ever-popular question of extraterrestrial life, which is not an LH concern (for what it’s worth, my take is that I would be astonished if there were none, but surprised if we find any in the foreseeable future, and by “find” I mean find actual living beings, not “signs pointing unmistakably”). What is LH material is this odd linguistic suggestion:

[Stuart] Bartlett, working with astrobiologist Michael Wong of the University of Washington in Seattle, argues that we need to escape the straitjacket of Earth-based thinking about life. They propose introducing a broader category called “lyfe” (pronounced, in an oddly West Country fashion, as “loif”), of which life as we know it is just one variation. “Our proposal attempts to break free of some of the potential prejudices due to us being part of this one instantiation of lyfe,” says Bartlett.

They suggest four criteria for lyfe:

1. It draws on energy sources in its environment that keep it from becoming uniform and unchanging.

2. It grows exponentially (for example by replication).

3. It can regulate itself to stay stable in a changing environment.

4. It learns and remembers information about that environment. Darwinian evolution is an example of such learning over very long timescales: genes preserve useful adaptations to particular circumstances.

The two researchers say there are “sublyfe” systems that only meet some of these criteria, and also perhaps “superlyfe” that meets additional ones: lyfe forms that have capabilities beyond ours and that might look on us as we do on complex but non-living processes such as crystal growth.

“Our hope is that this definition frees our imaginations enough to not miss lyfe that might be hiding in plain sight,” says Bartlett. He and Wong suggest that some lyving organisms might use energy sources untapped here on Earth, such as magnetic fields or kinetic energy, the energy of motion. “There is no known life form that directly harnesses kinetic energy into its metabolism,” says Bartlett.

I rarely try to predict the future, but I will make a prediction about this: it will not catch on. (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. Lyving, i.e. “loiving”?

    Oh, if only they had this in the sixties, what wretched lyrics they would write…

    (P.S. I’m not writing this comment. I’m on a computer. I’m wryting it.)

  2. As Andy Sandberg would say in “Brooklyn 99”: Noice!

  3. By this definition, bank debt and corporate entities seem to be instantiations of “Lyfe”. Some people will surely be happy about this idea.

  4. it will not catch on

    As didn’t a previous attempt, except amongst a small number of devotees.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s just a pain in the gryne.

  6. Y (pronounced like that) says

    As my people say, “y.”

  7. As didn’t a previous attempt

    The Meaning of Lif.

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I read that paper when it came out, and didn’t think it had much to say that was new or illuminating.

  9. Not new, and certainly not illuminating. I read the ‘original’ too. Alla Gorbunova’s fine novel, ‘Конец света, моя любовь’, which I’m reading thanks to you, hat, is wonderful, and certainly about the real thing.

  10. Excellent! I’m always pleased to have infected others with my enthusiasms.

  11. There are quite a few words (place names) from The Meaning of Liff that we use, in my family, anyway – woking, grimbister, jalingo…I am sure there are more. We scarcely think of where we got them. As do other people we know… Maybe I don’t understand the meaning of “caught on”.

  12. I think the situation you’re describing falls under “a small number of devotees.” I know a fair number of people who know about the book, but none who actually use the words.

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