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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Primordial Puff Piece

This week I saw an outrageous example of puffery in a press release announcing a scientific study. The press release was put out by the Georgia Institute of Technology, and was picked up word-for-word by the popular Science Daily site and other sites. The press release was entitled “Finding the Origins of Life in a Drying Puddle.”

Despite the dramatic title suggesting a solution to the age-old problem of the origin of life, when we read the details of the study we find some utterly boring results that aren't even a major step towards such a goal. Some scientists used a procedure involving wetting and drying cycles, and succeeded in combining amino acids into polypeptides that consisted of as many as 14 units.

To illustrate how minor this result is, I need merely show a diagram of a polypeptide. A polypeptide is like a necklace, and amino acids are like beads on the necklace.



This result (similar to previous results) is about as exciting as stringing 14 necklace beads onto the string of a necklace, or combining 13 individual playing cards into a bridge hand of 13 playing cards. The study does essentially nothing to answer the main problems in the origin of life, which include the staggering problems of the origin of self-replicating molecules, the origin of the genetic code, and the origin of proteins consisting of thousands of amino acids, not just 14.

So what we have here is quite a case of exaggeration by biologists. A press release that should have been humbly titled “Looking for the Origins of Life in a Drying Puddle” has instead been titled “Finding the Origins of Life in a Drying Puddle,” as if scientists have already solved a problem that could easily take them another thousand years to solve.

All in all, this press release tends to raise again the question of whether many of our scientists (who often speak as if they were lords of knowledge) may be closer to being “lords of exaggeration.” The truth is that scientists have made relatively little progress in the past 70 years searching for clues to the origin of earthly life. The task of explaining the origin of life using existing paradigms seems all-but-insurmountable. The concepts of natural selection and evolution really offer no help, because neither evolution nor natural selection can get started until life itself begins.

As I was typing this post, I was coincidentally watching a TV program in which some astronomers talked about the likelihood of life on other planets. One spoke as if the origin of life was as simple as having the right ingredients. Using similar reasoning, we might vacuously argue that we can explain the origin of a computer program by just mentioning that the electrons that make up that program (when it is stored in a computer) were lying around ready to be used.

The problem of the origin of life is a problem of accounting for an “information explosion” that seems inexplicable as a chance event. To get insight on such a thing, we may need a new paradigm that assumes that the information needed for the origin of life was already lurking within the universe, in some mysterious information infrastructure beyond our ken, some cosmic framework involving not just laws of nature but programming. You can't dismiss such a possibility by saying, “That's not allowed, because it sounds like some gift of a deity interested in our existence.” Exactly the same criticism could be made of the theory of gravitation or the theory of electromagnetism, which are equally necessary for our existence.