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Is origin of life really a science problem?

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stromatolites/C. Eeckhout

At Science, we learn that researchers think that sunlight might have given life on Earth the needed jolt to produce life:

A new study suggests that the iron-and-sulfur clusters at the heart of many life-critical enzymes could have been floating around Earth’s primordial seas some 4 billion years ago, produced by nothing more than primitive biomolecules, iron salts, and a previously unknown ingredient—ultraviolet (UV) light.

To find out whether iron-sulfur clusters were a core ingredient for life from the start—or whether the first organisms got along fine without them—Mansy and his team recreated the conditions of early Earth in their lab. University of Trento biochemist Claudia Bonfio removed oxygen and mixed together a brew of iron and glutathione, a sulfur-containing peptide likely present in the prebiotic chemical soup. When the iron was in an oxidation state that predominated on early Earth, iron (II), nothing happened. But when Bonfio flicked on the lights, a transformation took place. … More.

Needless to say, there are many, many other theories.

One problem is that the origin of life is not like the laws of physics. It is a historical event in time. It is more like World War II than it is like Newton’s Laws of Motion.

It might be easier to find out how to create life in the lab (whether or not it happened that way in nature billons of years ago) than to ever determine how exactly it did happen back then, in the absence of a really clear line of evidence.

No harm in it of course, as long as fanatics don’t take over.

See also: Maybe if we throw enough models at the origin of life… some of them will stick?


What we know and don’t know about the origin of life

Upright BiPed @2: You've asked an insightful question:
[...] will that fact mean anything to the academics, philosophers, and popularizers of science?
Nope. It won't mean anything. Unless they want it to mean something, in which case it will mean that what they want it to mean. As long as the will to understand is not there, they will continue to lack humility and open-mindedness, hence won't be able to think outside wrongly preconceived paradigms. Sorry to disappoint you with such a discouraging news. Dionisio
OOL debate at this point seems like tremendously puffed 'bzdura'* or 'yerunda'**. Anybody can sweep and mop the floor with all the archaic pseudoscientific hogwash that is said in those debates. :) (*) Polish language (**) Russian language Dionisio
I am not sure what the value is in conflating memory with physical information. They are two very different things. I can write "apple" on a piece of paper, which can in turn be fully described in terms of its dynamic properties. However, to connect that object to the red fruit with the white center and little black seeds requires a second complimentary description of organization, which is not integrable with dynamics. A potentially more revealing question is "What will men and women do?" At some point in the future it is almost certain that mankind will be able to bring about the specific organization required to start a novel cell cycle. Will we go forward and establish the semiotic aspects of the system required to make it work, or will we wait and try to "grow" that organization by chance and necessity? And when that first cell cycle finally comes about -- and it is completely obvious that we added the semiotic components to the system -- will that fact mean anything to the academics, philosophers, and popularizers of science? Upright BiPed
Back in the 1800's, there was the theory that the chemicals of life, the "organics", were not things that could be made in a testtube, they were special, they were "alive". Then in 1828 urea was synthesized in a testtube, and the world changed overnight. Life was not made of magic pixiedust, of organic molecules unobtainable from a lab, rather, all the building blocks of life were synthesizable. Of course urea was a really small molecule, 60 g/mol, whereas some of the other molecules used in the cell go over 100,000 g/mol. As the centuries rolled on, the size and complexity of inorganic synthesis and increased apace, and right now the holy grail is synthesizing RNA or DNA from scratch. Somehow this is supposed to prove that life can be made abiotically. But in principle, it is just a continuation of Friedrich Wohler's project from 1828. Still a long way to go, mind you, but in another 200 years I would expect to reach the holy grail. But in this nearly 200 year effort to make a cell from scratch, there arises this 2nd problem: we need to find some Rube Goldberg apparatus that will replace the white lab-coated chemist, since of course, there are no living creatures before life was created. That apparatus is apparently the point of this post, because, like most of Rube's inventions, it will only work once, so we can't exactly say what it was or is or will be. "Ahh," say the critics, "but all of Rube's inventions took a human being to assemble. So even if you find such an apparatus, it will still contain the information put there by a smart being. It will not be by chance." Well, on the surface, that's a metaphysical question. Can a complicated machinery arise by accident? Can the irreducible complexity of a stone arch arise through accidental assembly of scaffolding? (The neutral mutation hypothesis.) I will willingly suffer the slings and arrows of outraged fortune to suggest that it might. That is to say, the scaffolding is made of boards, and no single board has as much information in it as either the assembled scaffold or the stone arch. But if the boards have been cleverly made, say, with magnets on the ends, I could envision a random jostling of boards to self-assemble into scaffolding. "But wait a minute," the critic complains, "isn't that putting all the information into the clever magnet design? You are smuggling in the information!" Not exactly, because no single board or magnet has the same information as the assembled scaffold. What I am doing is spreading the information out. Then the assembly is merely an information processor that takes matter+information, which is "board+magnet" and concentrates it. The real problem is fighting entropy, which wants to disperse the information. But since "information processors" do exist, and do not violate any laws of thermodynamics, it would behoove origin-of-life (OOL) researchers to figure out how to implement some. "Doesn't the information processor need to be more complicated than the products it puts out? How can the product have more information than the machine that made it?" No. In a simple Universal Computer, aka Turing Machine, the 3 state system can process an infinite tape of data and create an infinite output tape, presumably with infinite information. But the 3 state system, the Turing Machine, doesn't have infinite information. So information processors or scaffolding constructors do not need to know what they are building. Just lots of boards. And while we may never recreate the precise Rube Goldberg machine that achieved life, we will at least have created a much smaller number of information concentrators. We may even hit upon "the" information concentrator. And that is my answer to the question posed by this post. Robert Sheldon

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