Jeremy England

Year of Graduation: 
Jeremy England

“There was a fevered sense of having an idea and not being able to stop thinking about it, and not being able to sleep.”

Jeremy England ’99 will have you know that he’s not buying the Charles Darwin comparisons. “The echo chamber of exaggerated statements on the internet is very loud and very powerful,” he says.

Nonetheless, the young physicist has grabbed the attention of the scientific world with a hypothesis about evolution that he calls dissipative adaptation. In short, England theorizes that random molecules can self-organize into lifeforms through the absorption and dissipation — or shedding — of heat in their natural environments. It’s akin, England says, to the way a tangle of springs and balls, when vibrated in his experiments, morphs into shapes by the laws of thermo dynamics. The notion that molecules can waltz their way to incipient life doesn’t supplant Darwin’s theory of evolution, England asserts, but instead it is complementary. Still, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science historian Edward J. Larson says, England “could be the next Darwin” if his hypothesis bears out.

England expects to spend the rest of his career proving his point, and he’s hoping scientists the world over join in. For now, the married father of three young boys keeps busy with his day job: working in Israel as a senior director for the British multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, specializing in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

But England’s story starts more than 5,000 miles away in Andover, Massachusetts, where as a 5-year-old he thrilled to dinosaurs and had early designs on becoming a paleontologist. That was until a few years later, following a move to New Hampshire, when he discovered the writings of English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his imagination turned to weightier questions. England’s precocity was in full bloom by age 10, when he and childhood buddy Alex Kaufman ’98 procured a forgotten blackboard from the basement of Temple Israel in Dover and decided to spend a day engaged in an impromptu math war. Typical kid stuff.

“I thought I was pretty hot stuff when it came to math, but Jeremy swore he knew more than I did,” says Kaufman, now a Bay Area analytics manager. “A challenge like that couldn’t stand. We went back and forth posing math problems, until Jeremy finally gave me a quadratic equation to solve. It was something I’d never seen before, and I was completely stumped.”

Although England excelled in the well-ordered world of mathematics, it was physics — with its concomitant order and disorder — that would become his passion. “I’m the type of physicist who likes statistical mechanics,” he says. “That’s a branch of physics that says, ‘All right, here’s a big mess. How do you figure out what kind of order is hiding in the mess?’ That’s much more how I operate — as a theoretical scientist.”

That mess, he notes, is a “refuge,” where he can “take something that seems too complicated and realize that you can make predictive models. Then you can see some kind of deep mathematical perfection hidden behind it."

Perhaps surprisingly, England never enrolled in a physics class as a student at the Academy, where he began as a lower. He had already taken a number of advanced math courses at the University of New Hampshire before the 10th grade, and besides, he says, focusing on biochemistry allowed him to experience the full breadth of the hard sciences, and not be railroaded into the narrower physics curriculum.

It was in a biology course taught by Science Instructor Townley Chisholm that England studied — and found a kind of majesty in — protein folding. Proteins are a cell’s molecular machine, stringy structures that can shape-shift and make it possible for a cell to accomplish its task. “I was fascinated at that point by the idea that pieces could fold into complicated shapes to give you exquisitely performed biochemical functions,” he says.

But he was never much for lab work. Not one to be careful and meticulous on the bench top, “I was a complete mess,” England admits.

Chisholm is charitable in his observations: “What I particularly remember about Jeremy was his delight in discussing ideas and their implications with his classmates. He was a very inclusive, considerate member of the conversation who consistently added unusual insights and perspectives to our classes. He thought a lot about the meaning of what we studied.”

England’s curiosity led him to earn his biochemical sciences undergraduate degree at Harvard, then to study theoretical physics as a doctoral student at Oxford, before he earned his Ph.D. at Stanford in 2009. “I was attracted by sweeping ideas,” he adds. “That was the catnip that drew me in. But there’s a danger there because a lot of students, especially younger ones, get caught up in the beauty of ideas and their apparent power and grandeur. They forget how much science really has to be rooted in empirical observations.”

These are sentiments he passes on to his own students; England launched his career as a lecturer and independent fellow at Princeton, after which he took his first teaching post at MIT when he was just 29. Today, in addition to his work at GlaxoSmithKline, he’s a principal research scientist at Georgia Tech.

Underlying England’s credentials is an insatiable desire to unlock puzzles that defy intuition and simple assumptions. “In this case,” he says, “asking how and whether simple laws of physics might somehow already imply that matter eventually starts acting in a lifelike way.” England’s thought processes have long garnered notice. He was a Rhodes scholar, a Hertz fellow, and in 2011, he was named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30 Rising Starsof Science.” England is also a polyglot; he speaks German, Spanish and Hebrew. He learned the latter to read the scriptures without a translator, and as a way to nurture his love for Israel.

Cover of Every Life is On Fire

England’s name became known beyond academia in 2017. A character with a like identity stars in Origin, a novel by Dan Brown ’82 in which a fictional Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology considers the origins of human life. Brown took England to lunch a month before publication to let his namesake know that he’d modeled a character after him. England does not criticize the book— not the science aspect, at least — but he penned a column for The Wall Street Journal disagreeing with Brown’s portrayal of the fictional Jeremy England as someone whose sole purpose in the story is “to demonstrate that science has made God irrelevant.”

It was a characterization that years ago might not have nettled England. But times have changed.

When he graduated from Harvard, England, whose mother’s parents were Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, was an avowed atheist. A 2005 visit to Israel, during his time at Oxford — and succeeding visits to the Holy Land — changed him in profound and unexpected ways. “I felt more at home here than I had anywhere,” he recalls. “It was a stunning experience.” Now a practicing Orthodox Jew, England also is an ordained rabbi who spends his limited free time studying the Hebrew Bible.

It was in Jerusalem in the summer of 2012 that England first began to chew on dissipative adaptation, with thoughts and ideas intruding on his honeymoon. “I played around with equations, flipped things around, and suddenly it seemed like there was an implication there that I hadn’t noticed before that pointed in a certain direction,” he recalls. “There was a fevered sense of having an idea and not being able to stop thinking about it, and not being able to sleep.”

These days, he views his work through a spiritual lens. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about that, he explains. “If you start with the scripture, and then go to the science, you’re doing it upside down and you’re going to end up very confused and not producing,” England says.

He melded science and faith in his 2020 book about dissipative adaptation, Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things. He began with a broader set of questions that people ask when they think about scientific reasoning and its relationship to the origins of life: What is the purpose of life? Who are we as human beings? He included Hebrew scriptures “as a different way of talking about the same topic,” England says, noting that there are people “horrified by the idea that someone is trying to make a serious case about science by mixing in anything to do with his religion.”

“People sometimes assume that [the book is] about whether you can reconcile religion and science, as though Jeremy is trying to find scientific proof for the existence of God, but I don’t think that’s right,” says Eric Henney, England’s editor at Basic Books. “What Jeremy is doing is trying to figure out what kinds of answers scientific inquiry can provide for existential questions. And where he lands is quite profound.” Profundity aside, England is currently taking dissipative adaptation in new directions, into questions of algorithmic matter. “How much can a big pile of particles compute if each particle itself is a computer?” he muses. He continues to ignore the Darwin comparisons. Such assessments can shut down reflection and critical engagement. He is unperturbed. He’s all about adapting.

— Andrew Faught

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.