The Dutch Origins Center, a virtual project, has been led by Nobel laureate Ben Feringa (2016, Chemistry)—-keynote speaker of this week’s two-day conference. The project is a Dutch national initiative involving 17 of the country’s universities and institutes.
Curiously, Steve Benner’s $5.4M Templeton-funded Origins project isn’t represented, but inorganic chemist Lee Cronin—-who’s developing a “Universal Life Detector” with big bucks from Templeton—- will address this week’s gathering. Cronin, based at the University of Glasgow, has been attempting to make matter come alive.
One of most notable presenters at the event is astrobiologist Bob Hazen, who told me he is “very sympathetic to people who see echoes of biology in mineralogy”. Hazen explained his perspective to me at length in a 2008 book interview: More.
Some of us think that the principal problem is an impasse: Some researchers believe that life just had to emerge from physics. That is a very old idea. It was called spontaneous generation, and it made so much sense that people accepted it for millennia, absent a modern standard of evidence. Incidentally, spontaneous generation did not pose a problem for religion; people of all religions accepted it. The idea died only when scientists started to insist on a demonstration, which somehow never happened. That is usually a clue to the fact that an idea is mistaken.
The other idea is chance: Somehow, somewhere, the cascade of needed events happened and somehow survived entropy. But as ever more complexities are discovered, the bigger The Fluke would need to be, possibly beyond the resources of the current universe.
The reason origin of life will be a pleasant summer watering hole for academics for the foreseeable future is that we do not know much about information or how it relates to matter and energy. We thus do not know how huge amounts of complex, specified information become incorporate in life forms (and not anywhere else). We do not want to grapple with that root problem by studying information as such. Everyone has his own Big Law or Big Fix to promote instead.
Mazur wonders what Harry Lonsdale would think of it all. Readers may remember Lonsdale (1932–2014), a self-made millionaire who privately funded origin of life research via a prize contest.
See also: Chemist Harry Lonsdale and the Secret of Life
Is origin of life a fluke, physics… or just not a science question at present?
What we know and don’t know about the origin of life