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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Big Toy" Science Takes On the Origin of Life

When science teachers want to encourage students to become scientists, they sometimes make a pitch like this: “It won't pay as much as Wall Street, but think of the cool toys you'll get to play with!” Yes, our modern scientists do get to play with cool, big, expensive “toys” – big, shiny, impressive-looking machines. In fact, it seems they sometimes spend too much time playing with such things, without much results.

Perhaps the ultimate case of “big toy science” was the Apollo moon mission. In that case, there was one of the coolest toys ever – the Saturn 5 rocket. But the scientific results were pretty meager. Can anyone tell us: what exactly did we learn from bringing back those moon rocks?

Another example of big toy science was the 300 million dollar LIGO project, which involved creating miles-long vacuum and laser tunnels in a search for gravitational waves. Total gravitational waves found: zero.

The scientist Nicholas Tesla said that when science began to study non-physical phenomena, it would make more progress in a decade than all of the previous years of its existence. There are certainly some types of reported phenomena that scientists could investigate at low cost, with a great potential for “bang for the buck.” I can think of five or ten unorthodox projects that could be done for $30,000, with a great potential for knowledge breakthroughs. But such possibilities don't seem to interest most of today's scientists, who prefer to work with projects involving big, expensive equipment.

I wonder whether there is some kind of “mine is bigger than yours” Freudian context involved when scientists construct ever bigger machines, often involving projects of dubious scientific merit. Perhaps the latest example was a project involving a 490-foot long laser, an experiment designed to shed light on the origin of life.

The scientists' idea was to zap some chemicals with a very powerful laser, supposedly to simulate the effects that an asteroid collision might have had billions of years ago. The underlying thinking is that asteroid collisions may have helped to spur the origin of life billions of years ago.

The laser used in the experiment (Credit: Dagmar Civisova)

The underlying thinking seems pretty ridiculous. We have been told many times that asteroid collisions are deadly perils that cause the massive obliteration of life, and that the spot where an asteroid strikes is like the ground zero of a nuclear explosion. So how in blazes could an asteroid collision have been some help in the origin of life? The idea of simulating an asteroid collision with a laser is also objectionable, since a laser blast is something very different from an asteroid collision. But why think about such objections when you have a chance to play with a cool 490-foot-long laser?

To get results other than a total bust, the scientists used what seems like a bit of a “cheat” or a fudge. Rather than just zapping water and ordinary soil or rock, they zapped a chemical called formamide, a liquid rather similar to ammonia. There's not much reason to think that this chemical was lying around in great amounts in the early Earth, so testing with that was rather dubious. Scientist Jeffrey Bada says, “Is the presence of pure formamide plausible on the prebiotic Earth? The answer is probably no.”

What was the result? The “base pairs” of RNA were produced, although one was produced in such small amounts that one scientist quoted in the AP article claims that the results are not very relevant. Moreover, we already knew that the base pairs of RNA could be created from zapping formamide with sufficient force. The book Practical Aspects of Computational Chemistry III says, “All five nucleobases and their analogues have been synthesized from formamide in the presence of various catalysts."

To create an RNA molecule, you need these “base pairs” as well as ribose sugars (not produced in the laser experiment). These also must combine in meaningful ways so that very long molecules are created which become self-replicating and serve as an expression of a genetic code, the origin of which is very mysterious. The chance of that all happening because of an asteroid collision: basically zero.

So the results, design, and assumptions of the experiment are all dubious. But I shouldn't be such a killjoy, and I should just let scientists like this have fun playing with their big laser toys, kind of like little boys playing with those Star Wars laser toys.