Hardly a month goes by without a celebration in the news that the “building blocks of life” have been found somewhere in space, or that chemical reactions “show how life emerged” on the primitive earth. Recently, the University of Bern triumphantly announced that “Rosetta’s comet contains ingredients for life.” All that was detected was glycine (the simplest and the only achiral amino acid) and the element phosphorus (which is tantamount to calling any other element, like hydrogen or oxygen, an “ingredient for life”). New Scientist chimed in: “Building blocks of life spotted around comet for the first time.” Meanwhile, PhysOrg suggested there might be life on the asteroid Ceres. Why? Because water ice probably exists under the surface.
The mainstream media typically report such findings uncritically. It’s refreshing, then, to see a chemist and a space scientist take a hard look at the failings in origin-of-life research. In America’s leading journal, Science, they ignore the hype about water and simple chemicals implying life. They “get real” about the limits of chemistry. And they seriously look for radically different ways to approach the problem — some of which will be of interest to design theorists.
One of the authors is Leroy Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow (where, incidentally, Darwin critic William Thomson — Lord Kelvin — had his long and distinguished career). The other is Sara Imari Walker from Arizona State where space science is big and aggressive atheist cosmologist Lawrence Krauss is a campus celebrity; she’s also a member of the Blue Marble Space Institute for Science here in Seattle.
They have no patience with the usual celebratory fluff. They want a revolution: More.
But a revolution against pop science would mean thinking clearly about science. That’s work, guys.
… hydrogen, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, or peptides, possibly kick started life. Maybe metals acted as catalysts. Or mica sheets. Otherwise, cold temperatures or ice helped life get started, despite the fact that cold reduces chemical reaction speed. Or a high salt environment. Or hot springs. No surprise that science writer Colin Barras observes that origin of life is “a highly polarised field of research.” Most fields have only two poles, not twenty.
There. We don’t need to think now. Take two and have a nap.
See also: What we know and don’t, know about the origin of life
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