I fear that the only good to come of the demise of Fire Magazine is that Cecil can get away with this.

I know the life-long martyrdom,
The weariness, the endless pain
Of waiting for some one to come
To provide the link again.
(adapted from Longfellow)

Please include a link to Cecil’s column if it’s on the straight dope web site. To include a link, it can be as simple as including the web page location in your post (make sure there is a space before and after the text of the URL).

Cecil’s column can be found on-line at this link:
Why don’t we consider fire alive? What is life? (12-Dec-1997)

moderator, «Comments on Cecil’s Columns» **

Um, wasn’t it obvious? Especially since my comment was so ephemeral as to be able to vanish from even THIS forum in a matter of hours? :wink:

The problem with defining “life” is that it may not be a binary -yes/no definition. Instead consider a continous numerical scale of the degree of life. then some of the ambiguity goes away.

How to define this scale? one could cobble together some atteibutes but heres one recently proposed by Dr. David H. Wolpert as NASA. He suggests that entropy is not a good measure of life: his examples are
Diamonds–perfectly ordered but obviously not living
Air or gas–perfectly disordered but not living.

He suggests another measure called “self-dissimilarity”. Which means that as one examines an object at varing dimensional scales does its similarity to itself change. The concept being that living things have the tendency to change their organizational behaviour at different scales.

examples: in a cell various functions comparmentalized. Withing these comartments the organization (sack of plasm) is baically undifferentiated. At a slightly larger scale–groups of cells-- the organizaition is just that a bunch of cells talking to each other by secretion, this persists untill the number of cells reaches the size of a organ, which commincate with each other by the blood stream. and so on up in different dimensional scales even past the individual level to social interactions, on up to ochestrated layers of corporate management, and on up to governement.

at each scale the organization is self similiar for a while then abrupty shifts to a different form of intecaction between the consituting elements.

By this definition, both diamond and Gas are dead since they are self-simmilar over all dimensions (and time)

The argument against entropy is, as given, inadequate. Asimov’s point is that life is a ongoing dynamic system that causes a local decrease in entropy. A diamond is neither a dynamic system nor self-caused.

Not to quible herr kennedy, since its a detour from my main point. But the phenomena of self-assembly is a spontaneous, dynamic and ongoing reduction in entropy of the assembled material. The simplest such reaction is simply the formation of a crystal. For example, a sugar crystal precipitating from a saturated sugar solution. Analogously, diamonds are routinely fabricated in the lab, and presumably in nature, by growing them a layer at a time. the exisiting diamond sevres as a template for self-propagating growth. By asimovs definition this is alive, though it is obviously dead in any sense of the word. Such self-propagating growth is not limited to simple crystal formation, complex lipid bilayers and even protein structurures (e.g. prions–aka mad cow disease) are examples of dead but dynamic selfpropagating entropy reducing structures.

I thought he was referring to the lamented Life magazine, as in “I need to getta…” Or am I so burned out that I’m missing Cecil’s matchless humor? Light a candle and dispel the darkness of my ignorance for me here, drop.

He brought up the problems caused by things like virii, but didn’t deal with it at all. I think the following does:

 Life is a system that contains reproducable hereditary information and which is capable of self reproduction given suitable living conditions and raw materials.

 This excludes things like virii, as they are not capable of self reproduction. It also excludes prions, as they do not contain hereditary information, their form alone does the reproduction.
 Note that the broad definitions of live not only run into trouble with virii and even prions, but also computer virii.

Um, I thought Cecil was referring to Life magazine, too. He’s answering the question, “What is life?” with, “It’s the name of a magazine.”

Maybe Dropzone’s just inserting his own once-per-column joke?

And, um, Loren? Since when is the plural of “virus”, “virii”? Maybe in certain technical circles, but the Real World plural is still “viruses”. :smiley:

“Vye-ree-eye”, I presume?

[visualizing myself telling my mom she must have one a them flu virii…]

Hee. :slight_smile:

“Virii” is flat-out wrong. If it were the plural of anything, it would be the plural of tne nonexistent word “virius”.

“Virus” is a problematic word, masculine in form, but neuter in gender. Such words are rare, and are all of a meaning that is not commonly plural, so that it is difficult to say for certain whether the “correct” plural is “viri” or “vira”.

In any case, the Latin word “virus” means “slime”, “poison”, or “bitter taste”, not “a parasitic marginal life form consisting of a single DNA molecule and a protein envelope”. (At the time that the word “virus” was applied to them, their nature was not yet understood. All that was known was that there was some kind of infectious agent that couldn’t be seen in the most powerful microscope or caught by the finest filter.)

In short, “viruses” is, as noted, the plural of the English word.

BTW, if you yell, “FIRE!” on a crowded message board, and teeming hundreds get crushed trying to hit escape, that would definitely be an example of fire causing entropy, no matter how ephemeral. <insert smilie acknowledging lameness here>

 I've never looked it up. I've seen both spellings in print.

Vira is plainly wrong. Since virus is a 2nd declension noun, the plural must be viri, as is shown in any Latin dictionary. should provide more insight

Yes, but it’s one of only three 2nd-declension neuter nouns in -us, all three of which are words that are rarely encountered in the plural to begin with. I have a 300-page Latin grammar (not a dictionary, not a textbook – 300 whole pages of pure grammar) that is equivocal on the issue.

And “viri” has the disadvantage of already being the plural of “vir” – (male) man. I rather fancy the average ancient Roman might very well have opted for “vira”, as though it were a normal neuter in -um.

As to “virii”, all I can say is that it isn’t Latin or English.

“vira” doesn’t sound right at all. Here’s the way I see the declension of “virus”:

a) It’s either a “second-declension” noun, so its plural would be similar to that of “dominus” - viri. I don’t think that would have bothered Roman grammarians too much, after all both masculine (e.g. dominus) and feminine (e.g. quercus) nouns had the nominative plural ending of “-i”.

b) It has a declension similar to “manus”, in which case the nominative plural would be “manus”.

c) It has a declension similar to “opus”, in which case the nominative plural would be “virera”. IMHO “virera” also sounds funny.

Please stop throwing out wild guesses when I’ve already given established facts!!!

“Virus” is a neuter second-declension noun in -us.

It is not declined like “opus”, which is a third-declension neuter.

It is not declined like “manus”, which is a fourth-declension feminine.

There are only three neuter second-declension nouns in -us in the Latin language. The others are “pelagus” (sea) and “vulgus” (rabble). And “vulgus” is sometimes masculine, and “pelagus” is declined in the plural as though it were Greek. In other words, “virus” is a one-of-a-kind word, and since its main meaning is “slime”, and there are at least two other words for “poison”, I’m not even sure that it has a Latin plural.

In any case, “virus” in Latin is never the name of a countable object, let alone a reference to a biological entity of which the Romans had no knowledge, so attaching a Latin plural to it in English is an annoying genteelism to begin with.

Thank you, Mr Kennedy, for that very lucid explanation, on behalf of those of us whose Latin is rusty and/or less complete than yours. Bergan Evans doesn’t give a detailed explanation, but just says “The only plural is ‘viruses.’”
On a not unrelated point, he observes, “No one should feel that he must treat ‘data’ as a plural just because Julius Caesar may have done so,” the point being that “data,” like “virus,” though cognate to a Latin word, is now an English word in its own right. A number of very bad ideas about English grammar and usage (prohibitions on split infinitives and on prepositions at the ends of sentences, for example) have arisen from attempts to make English conform to Latin structural models. “Genteelism” is, I fear, far too polite a word for it. Thanks again,


Sir! Yes Sir! Should I drop and give you twenty?

Well, I’m not very happy about “data”, because “datum” is also a word in English, and there is no serious question about “data” being the plural of “datum”. So if the common use of treating “data” as a collective singular is to accepted, it means that “data” is both singular and plural. Ick!

On the other hand, I suppose it leaves “data” no worse off than “people”.

“Ick” indeed. But it is a messy language.

Most people, when they’re using the word “data,” are not using the plural of the English word “datum.” I would submit that those whose active vocabulary includes a word like “datum” are likely to be educated enough to be sensitive to nuances such as keeping the singular “data” and the plural “data” straight. Wishful thinking, I know, but it’s all I have.