Goldilocks Chemistry

If we infidels are going to go around insisting that life arose spontaneously without miraculous intervention, then we’re naturally going to have a keen interest in providing an explanation of how that could have happened. To make the story hang together, what’s needed is for some sort of self-replicating molecules to have arisen, and a plausible suggestion as to how that can have happened. (DNA won’t do, as it requires too much ancillary machinery to do its work.)

Progress has been made. Here’s an article that will explain where we’ve got to so far.

P.S. Don’t miss the bit about the fuzzy beast with seven sexes.

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  1. Malcolm, I hate to pour cold water, or even hot water, or even buckets of ice, onto that essay but I have rarely read so many ifs, buts and maybes. The closer they think they get, the further away they seem to go! I fear they are headed into the biological equivalent of quantum mechanics through the looking glass – now you see it, now you don’t!

    Posted August 17, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    That’s fair enough, of course, but do keep in mind how very far the whole enterprise of inquiry into life’s origins has come. Where once there was a notion of static, eternally distinct species imagined as wholly separate and individual acts of Divine creation just a few thousand years old, we’ve now worked the whole puzzle back as far as figuring out the remaining details of some primitive self-replicating molecules that existed three billion years ago.

    Yes, that’s a special piece of the puzzle — what got the whole ball rolling? — but look at the vanishingly tiny corner that’s left for miraculous intervention, compared to where our understanding was just a couple of centuries back.

    Posted August 17, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  3. I don’t quite see it that way, Malcolm. To me it seems more like we are pushing and pushing and pushing and the ultimate answer seems to get further and further away. Or, to use a hackneyed analogy, it’s a bit like those blasted Russian dolls.

    Don’t be confused, I am a confirmed, fundamentalist agnostic and, yes, I do find it quite comfortable sitting on this fence, thank you for asking!

    Oh, and the ‘Thing’ with seven sexes reminds me of the increasing number of dimensions invented by physicists to explain what they find otherwise inexplicable. My credulity is being stretched further than my waistband!

    Posted August 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    I’d say you can make a far stronger case for an infinitely receding Ultimate Answer when it comes to the puzzles of fundamental physics than you can here. The whole chain of life is making pretty good sense at this point; the only thing left is to get at what molecules, exactly, could have arisen under the conditions of the primordial Earth’s chemistry that could have functioned as effective replicators. But unlike the endlessly unfolding mysteries of QM, string theory, etc., this is just a problem in ordinary chemistry and geology, with none of that sort of esoterica.

    Posted August 17, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  5. The easily unimpressed are always quick to adopt a skeptical view when confronted with heroic explanations for incredibly difficult questions. One need only recall the skepticism that confronted Einstein’s special relativity in 1905, with its then mind-boggling proposition that E=mc^2.

    As Big Al said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Nevertheless, there are always those who demand more simplicity, or else, I suppose, we won’t get their approval.

    Posted August 17, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  6. Henry, I apologise for my lack of enthusiasm for “heroic explanations” it is merely a reflection of my experiences through a long-ish life in which I have watched various scientists in various fields ‘go over the top’ with great enthusiasm only to be mown down by deadly sceptical machine-gunners manning the opposition trenches! Even so, I readily admit that inch by inch we (or they) edge closer – but closer to what. I wonder?

    As for your ‘hero’, Albert, I seem to recall that he was highly sceptical concerning some of the intricacies of quantum physics – the treacherous old swine!

    Posted August 18, 2011 at 3:33 am | Permalink
  7. David,

    Yes, of course, scientific research has never progressed monotonically. If it did, it would be more like technological improvement, not scientific discovery.

    Big science is about big risk and bold speculation, along with merciless testing via ingenious experimentation. The theoretical propositions are much more often proven wrong than right. Nevertheless, “safe” R&D funded by agencies, which demand a high degree of success, get the mediocre results they pay for.

    Even geniuses like Einstein were occasionally wrong. Bohr famously told Einstein to “stop telling God what to do” when Big Al made his pronouncement that “God does not play dice”, in reference to quantum mechanics. But guys like Bohr and Einstein, as two of the principals in the development of the incredibly counter-intuitive QM theory, are entitled to whatever skepticism they express in the process.

    Such entitlement, however, does not automatically extend to every Tom, Dick, Henry, or David.

    Posted August 18, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Such entitlement, however, does not automatically extend to every Tom, Dick, Henry, or David.

    Oh, I don’t know. I’d say everyone’s entitled to be skeptical, with his own reasons for being so.

    That said, there’s no guarantee that others will see your skepticism as being rightly founded. For example, I’m skeptical about the effectiveness of Keynsian economic strategies, and about whether any global warming that may or may not be happening is primarily caused by human activity. For those views I would be ridiculed by Paul Krugman and Al Gore, respectively (an achievement that would be rather a mark of distinction). I’m skeptical nevertheless.

    Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  9. Henry, I am reminded of some witty dialogue from Stoppard’s greatest play, “Arcadia”. A university literary type is arguing with a university scientific type and bursts out with this:

    “Oh, you’re going to zap me with penicillin and pesticides. Spare me that and I’ll spare you the bomb and aerosols. But don’t confuse progress with perfectability. A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There’s no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle’s cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God’s crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can’t think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars – big bangs, black holes – who gives a shit? How did you people con us out of all that status? All that money? And why are you so pleased with yourselves?”

    Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  10. Come on, Malcolm; don’t insult my intelligence. Of course everyone can choose to be skeptical.

    Everyone can choose to be a pompous ass, too. Or pretend that anyone else gives a shit.

    Posted August 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    No insult intended, Henry.

    Posted August 18, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  12. None taken, Malcolm; it’s a figure of speech. After all the verbal abuse exchanged between me and your one-eyed friend, you ought to know me better by now.

    I know that textual exchanges, emoticons not withstanding, can often be misconstrued because all the visual-aid nuance is missing from the conversation. But I think that some contextual inferences can be made without having to rely on strict literal interpretations.

    My initial comment, above, albeit somewhat inexplicit, was meant to convey the idea that one can always choose to be skeptical about anything at all. But unless your skepticism is grounded in at least a working knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of the subject matter under consideration, you are flattering yourself if you think that anyone other than your mother is interested in what you think.

    Posted August 18, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Well, fundamental physics is an interesting example here. David is skeptical that we are really getting that much closer to a truly bedrock understanding of physics; although of course we make continuous progress, it does seem that with each new breakthrough there are even greater mysteries. (My point was that the search for the first self-replicating molecules was not comparable to this, being basically just a problem completely circumscribed within known areas of chemistry and geology.)

    You’re a physicist. There’s no question that we know a great deal more than we used to about the foundations of physics, but is David right when he says it seems the goal is always receding, no matter how far we get? (I know a thing or two about physics, even including QM, and I can see how one might feel that way.)

    Posted August 18, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  14. Ah, there’s the nub of my objection.

    I do not pretend to know whether or not David is right about his impression that the ultimate goal appears to be receding. In fact, I would venture to say that no one knows. Yet. Perhaps know one will ever know, with certainty. Some very great minds, like Einstein, Penrose, and the indefatigable Hawking may have (had) their hunches. But none of them could know.

    My objection has to do, not with asking the question, but with expressing a preference for an answer to the question, based on having observed various scientific propositions not withstanding critical review.

    Posted August 18, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  15. Henry, you must forgive my resistance to the notion of ‘The Expert’. All my life I have been bombarded with ‘expertise’ and I have lost count of the number of times these ‘experts’ turned out to be not quite as ‘expert’ as they would have us believe.

    My resistance turns to something much fiercer when anyone suggests that one cannot question ‘the experts’ unless one has some expertise in the subject at hand. For example, I failed every single scientific exam placed before me in school but I ‘knew’, years ago, that almost every conclusion arrived at by highly qualified ‘experts’ in the field of global climate was BLX! And thus, it has proved to be. You may wonder how I came to such a conclusion based on total ignorance and I will tell you that it is because I have lost count of the number of times I have been suckered before. (Also, a certain amount of life experience and observed traits in human nature, to which scientists are far from impervious, helped!)

    My very strong recommendation to ignoramuses of the world is to nurture your scepticism!

    Posted August 19, 2011 at 5:23 am | Permalink
  16. David,

    All is forgiven. It is, as of the last time I checked, still a free country.

    I am no stranger to the kinds of faux expertise you have experienced. As my hero Big Al once quipped, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe.”

    Posted August 19, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  17. Well said, Henry – and ‘Big Al’!

    Mind you, I must admit (but don’t tell anyone) that from time to time I do get rather excited by all this science lark. Some 30 years ago I bought a book simply because of its title, I do that constantly being something of a ‘bookaholic’. The title was “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” by some Californian cove called Gary Zukav. Its sub-title was “An Overview of the New Physics” and at the time I had no idea that there was such a thing as ‘the New Physics’ but as I had never mastered the old physics I wondered if it was any easier! As the main title suggests, there was a thread of Zen Buddhism in it but that was easily skipped and the vast majority of the content was an explanation (for Dummies!) of quantum mechanics. That little paperback book, which I still treasure on my bookcase, absolutely blew my mind away. Zukav remains as one of the very best teachers of physics I have ever come across and as a result of his brilliant explanations I became an instant science fanatic and have since accumulated about three dozen science books (for beginners, natch!)

    So I do understand and empathise with the excitement of scientists with a red-hot, sexy theory, but even so, I do recommend them taking a cold shower from time to time!

    Posted August 19, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  18. Don’t know much about Zen Buddhism, but I recommend: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (though I suspect you’ve already read it).

    As for “red-hot, sexy theory”, I am reminded of another Big Al aphorism, “Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

    BTW, Big Al is one of my heroes not only because of his great mind, but also because he was a world-class womanizer.

    Posted August 19, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  19. Heard of it but never read it.

    Also, if they’d told me at school that being a great scientist pulls birds better than anything, I might have concentrated more!

    By the by, if you ever get a chance to see a performance of Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen”, beg, borrow, steal or kill for a ticket. Only three characters, Neils Bohr, his missus and Heisenberg – terrific!

    Posted August 19, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  20. hbd chick says

    cool! thnx! (^_^)

    Posted August 20, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink