Redford-style good looks have not been enough to divert Dieter Braun from his research interest in nonequilibrium conditions on the microscale, and what is now a central role in the investigation into the origins of life. Braun—-a professor of systems biophysics at Ludwig Maxmilians University in Munich, a Simons Foundation collaborator on the origins of life, and scientific coordinator of the OLIM initiative (Origin of Life Munich)—-says a whole new breed of scientists, “experimentally driven,” have entered the field as funding opens up and that origins of life research is no longer a “side activity,” fishing expedition, or place for dreamy “pet theories.”
He tells Mazur,
We’re getting a good corps of people now who are reshaping the field in a completely new way. It’s clearly a time to invest in origins research. We’ll see solid science back from these investments.
In the past, origins of life was a side activity for older, established scientists. Now young people are entering the field who are much more experimentally driven. They don’t write long papers about their pet theories without solid experimental proof. It becomes a real scientific exercise now, particularly as funding becomes more available.
Mazur, in a feat rare among science writers, presses Braun on the use of Darwinian terminology in origin of life studies:
Suzan Mazur: There seems to be a need for new terminology, new language in the field to describe this. Selection isn’t an accurate description.
Dieter Braun: That’s a big difficulty in the field, absolutely. Selection, if I say that to biologists, to physicists, to chemists, it has completely different meanings to each. In science we have trouble writing papers because we run into these ambiguities in different fields. That’s what’s going on right now in the origins field. Things are increasingly interdisciplinary. It would be a great advantage to have more precise language. We will find this as we continue to communicate across disciplines. In the end, experiments will be our common language. More.
The new researchers seem to be trying to replace the establishment “What if?” with Michael Behe’s “How, exactly?” At that point, genuine limitation and problems will emerge—and, in thee times, that is progress.
Note: Mazur is the author of Origin of Life Circus, a series of interviews with current researchers.
See also: Netherlands sponsors major origin of life research project
Maybe if we throw enough models at the origin of life… some of them will stick? (This is probably the sort of thing Braun means.)