In “A Romp Into Theories of the Cradle of Life” (February 21, 2011), New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye sounds like a man who knows a comic scene when he sees one:
Two dozen chemists, geologists, biologists, planetary scientists and physicists gathered here recently to ponder where and what Eden might have been. Over a long weekend they plastered the screen in their conference room with intricate chemical diagrams through which electrons bounced in a series of interactions like marbles rattling up and down and over bridges through one of those child’s toys, transferring energy, taking care of the business of nascent life. The names of elements and molecules tripped off chemists’ tongues as if they were the eccentric relatives who show up at Thanksgiving every year.
We learn some interesting things:
In front of a 2,400-member audience one night they debated the definition of life — “anything highly statistically improbable, but in a particular direction,” in the words of Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist at Oxford.
Hmmm. I thought that NASA described life as “a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.” Is this no longer the case? If not, why not?
Superb snapshots by Overbye:
“If you want to think of it that way, life is a very simple process,” said Sidney Altman, who shared a Nobel Prize in 1989 for showing that RNA had these dual abilities. “It uses energy, it sustains itself and it replicates.”One lesson of the meeting was how finicky are the chemical reactions needed for carrying out these simple-sounding functions. “There might be a reason why amino acids and nucleotides are the way they are,” Dr. Krauss said.
What looks complicated to us might not look so complicated to a piece of a carbon molecule awaiting integration into life’s dance. “Complexity is in the eye of the beholder,” said Dr. Sutherland, who after 10 years of trying different recipes succeeded in synthesizing one of the four nucleotides that make up RNA in a jar in his lab.
It’s almost as if the writer is trying to say something he can’t really say. Comments?