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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, December 29, 2019

Soup Sham: The Myths of the Miller-Urey Experiment

The Miller-Urey experiment was an experiment done in the 1950's which was claimed to be a big advance relating to the origin of life. The coverage of this experiment in the scientific mainstream is one of the most egregious cases of hype, erroneous information and faulty analysis to be found anywhere in science-related literature. For 65 years mainstream sources have been spouting baloney and incorrect or misleading information on this topic.

The Miller-Urey experiment used a glass apparatus with several different glass chambers connected by tubes. The top glass chamber was filled with a mixture of gases consisting mainly of ammonia and methane. This chamber had an electrical spark unit that continually bombarded these gases with electricity. If you imagine the electrical sparks coming from a half-severed power line, you will get an idea of how this electrical spark unit worked. The lower chamber consisted of very warm water. After a week of electrical discharges delivered to the gases, amino acids were found in the water of the lower chamber.

For decades this experiment was hailed as something that had shown that “building blocks of life could naturally form,” or that before life appeared there once existed on Earth some "primordial soup" rich in such "building blocks of life." Over the next 65 years, this phrase of “building blocks of life” was constantly used in discussions of the Miller-Urey experiment. But it was never an accurate or appropriate term to be using to describe the amino acids that were produced. The real building blocks of visible organisms are cells, which are built up from the building blocks of protein molecules. The real building blocks of a microscopic microbe are protein molecules, chemical units that usually consist of hundreds of amino acids arranged in just the right way. Amino acids are merely the building blocks of the building blocks of one-celled organisms, and are merely the building blocks of the building blocks of the building blocks of human beings. So it was never accurate to be calling amino acids “building blocks of life.” Calling an amino acid a “building block of life” is as misleading as calling a tiny clay speck “a building block of a house.” Such clay specks are merely the building blocks of a brick, which is a building block of a house.

There is another reason why it is a very misleading analogy to describe amino acids as “building blocks of life.” A building block can be used in any order. If I have a dump truck dump a huge pile of bricks on the lot of my construction site, I can use those bricks in any order to create a brick wall that is the beginning of a house. But amino acids are very different. To make some functional protein, amino acids must be added in just the right order. Shuffle the amino acid sequence of a protein molecule, and you will destroy its functionality. A good and fair analogy would be to compare a protein molecule to an ordered and fine-tuned sequence such as the ordered sequence of characters that make up an essay, a chapter, or a computer program. An amino acid can then be compared to a particular character in such a sequence. Rather than using such a good analogy (appropriate for a case that requires a special arrangement that is an ordered fine-tuned sequence), the science literature has for 65 years used an inappropriate and misleading analogy in which amino acids are compared to building blocks (things that do not require some special arrangement).

Very few of the countless discussions of the Miller-Urey experiment clearly stated the important fact that the experiment had produced amino acids with an equal mixture of right-handed and left-handed amino acids, unlike what is found in earthly organisms. An article in Astrobiology magazine puts it this way:

A curious aspect of Earth’s life forms is that they contain (with few exceptions) only left-handed amino acids. In contrast, when scientists synthesize amino acids from nonchiral precursors, the result is always a 'racemic' mixture – equal numbers of right- and left-handed forms. Scientists have been unable to perform any experiment that, when starting with conditions believed to emulate those of early Earth, results in a near-total dominance of left-handed amino acids, says George Cody, a geochemist at the Carnegie Institute of Washington.”

Once the Miller-Urey experiment occurred, the world of science literature began to repeat again and again the claim that such an experiment had shown that there must have been some “primordial soup” filled with amino acids. In fact, the experiment actually provided no warrant for any such claim. This is because the experiment had involved week-long continuous electrical bombardment of gases, something that has never occurred in the history of planet Earth.

There is no reason to believe that lightning was any more common in the early Earth than it is today. The chance of someone being hit by lightning is about 1 in 700,000 per year. The chance of a particular man-sized spot being hit twice by lightning in the same year is about 1 in 14,000,000,000,000. But the Miller-Urey experiment used an electrode to provide continuous electricity for a week. During that week, very many thousands of electrical jolts were transmitted into the apparatus. In the history of Earth there has never been any area that got even a millionth of that frequency of electrical stimulation from natural lightning, which lasts for only about 30 millionths of a second when it strikes. The length of electrical stimulation in the Miller-Urey experiment was about 20 billion times longer than the length of time that any natural spot on Earth would have been electrically stimulated by lightning. This by itself is sufficient reason for saying that the Miller-Urey experiment was not a realistic simulation of early Earth conditions. This huge problem with the experiment was ignored by 99% of the treatments of the Miller-Urey experiment in science literature. 

Another reason for doubting the relevancy of the Miller-Urey results is that the electricity was created in a closed glass apparatus chamber. Natural lightning is never created in such a closed environment, but arises instead in the open air, where there is ample opportunity for dissipation of the energy.   

The extreme rarity of amino acids outside of living organisms was another reason for thinking that there could not be any natural non-biological chemistry by which amino acids are created in appreciable amounts, contrary to what the Miller-Urey experiment may have suggested.  As a scientist named Menez stated, "People have predicted the existence of abiotic amino acids from experiments and thermodynamic calculations, but no one has seen them occurring in terrestrial settings, neither in ponds nor in rocks." 

Then there is the issue of the type of gases used in the Miller-Urey experiment. The two scientists used the wrong mixture of gases. They tried to simulate the early earth's atmosphere by using mainly ammonia and methane. But there never was any sound basis for thinking that such gases were the main gases in the early Earth's atmosphere. It is now believed that the early earth's atmosphere was mainly carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor.

A 1965 scientific paper makes clear that there was no basis in that time for thinking that the early earth's atmosphere was mainly methane, ammonia or any mixture of the two. The paper tells us, “The growth of the initial atmosphere and oceans from volcanic discharge seems probable.” The paper then lists some of the contents of volcanic discharges, giving these numbers:

Water vapor: 20-97%
Carbon dioxide: 1-40%
Nitrogen (N2) : 1-38%
Sulfur dioxide: 0-8%
Hydrogen: 0-4%
Chlorine: 0-4%

The paper also says that methane and ammonia are only emitted by volcanoes in “small quantities.”

Anyone putting such facts together in a kind of “two plus two equals four” way should have realized that it made no sense to assume that the early earth's atmosphere was mainly methane and ammonia. If the earth's atmosphere came mainly from volcanoes, then we clearly should assume that the early earth's atmosphere was mainly the type of gases most commonly emitted by volcanoes (nitrogen, carbon dioxide,  water vapor and sulfur dioxide), and not some gases such as methane and ammonia that are emitted by volcanoes only in “small quantities.”

The facts listed above in the 1965 paper were well known by 1950. So the scientific basis for not believing that the earth's early atmosphere was mainly ammonia and methane was well known by 1950, years before the Miller-Urey experiment. But once the Miller-Urey experiment was done in the 1950's, the world of science literature ignored such very clear reasons for thinking the experiment was of no great relevance. A thousand books and articles hailed the Miller-Urey experiment. Almost all of these writers of these treatments seemed to throw away their critical faculties when dealing with this topic. The writers ignored one very clear and obvious reason for regarding the experiment as irrelevant (the fact that no place on Earth gets anything even a millionth as much as a week of continuous exposure to lightning). They also ignored another clear and obvious reason for rejecting the experiment, that it used the wrong mixture of gases to simulate the early Earth. For 40 years the experts and writers describing the Miller-Urey experiment in enthusiastic tones were like some car buyer who enthusiastically buys a snazzy shiny car, failing to notice heavy smoke and loud noise coming from the engine during the test drive.

Miller Urey experiment

Eventually more and more evidence piled up that the gases used by Miller and Urey were not the right mixture. It became more and more evident that the early Earth's atmosphere was a totally different mixture, one corresponding pretty closely to actual outputs of volcanoes (a mixture of mainly nitrogen and carbon dioxide, along with considerable water vapor and sulfur dioxide).

A 2011 press release preserved on a NASA site states the following:  "We can now say with some certainty that many scientists studying the origins of life on Earth simply picked the wrong atmosphere,' said Bruce Watson, Institute Professor of Science at Rensselaer."  The "many scientists" referred to include Miller and Urey.  The press release tells us that the correct atmosphere (derived from a study of volcanic emissions) would have been "an atmosphere dominated by the more oxygen-rich compounds found within our current atmosphere — including water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide."  A 2007 scientific paper says, "the early Earth is likely to have had a CO2-rich atmosphere, and not a ‘Milley–Urey'’ atmosphere, since at least 4 Ga [4 gigayears] (Canil, 1997; Delano, 2001; Kasting and Catling, 2003)."

Dragging their heels as long as they could, mainstream authorities finally began to eventually let us know (around the year 2010 or so) that the Miller-Urey experiment used the wrong mixture of gases the simulate the early Earth's atmosphere. But they only let us know such a thing decades after they should have told us about this shortcoming. 

Of the experiments using a more suitable mixture of gases to simulate the early Earth's atmosphere, it must be said that none of them have produced a variety of amino acids under conditions realistically simulating the early Earth. In general the methodology of such “Miller-Urey sequel experiments” has been just as objectionable as the Miller-Urey experiment. An example is an experiment that subjected gases to 2 hours of intense proton bombardment. No area on Earth ever received so high a dose of radiation. Another example is an experiment that used strong electrical charges to produce amino acids. Such charges would not have been available in the early Earth.

The situation now is that our mainstream authorities will typically let us know that the Miller-Urey experiment used the wrong gases to simulate the early Earth. But they will typically make such a confession somewhere where it is least likely to be noticed by the reader. It's as if our mainstream writers were still trying to squeeze as much effect from the Miller-Urey experiment as they can, even though the experiment has been debunked. A typical treatment will go like this:

  1. The Miller-Urey experiment will be discussed in a way that initially leads the reader to think that it was something indicating that there would have been many amino acids on the early Earth.
  2. Somewhere much later in the discussion, it will be mentioned that the Miller-Urey experiment did not use a correct mixture of gases.

Of course, this type of treatment is misleading. It's as misleading as a blog post that tells you in paragraph one that a certain Senator has been accused of murder, and then tells you in paragraph ten that the person making the claim about the murder has admitted that he was merely joking or playing a prank.

An example of this type of treatment is in the Wikipedia.org article on abiogenesis. Near the beginning of the article, we read a statement designed to make the reader think that the Miller-Urey experiment told us something important: “The classic 1952 Miller–Urey experiment and similar research demonstrated that most amino acids, the chemical constituents of the proteins used in all living organisms, can be synthesized from inorganic compounds under conditions intended to replicate those of the early Earth.” Only much, much later in the article do we read about how the Miller-Urey experiment used the wrong mixture of gases to simulate the early earth's atmosphere. It's as if some rule was in operation that our mainstream authorities are still trying to make as many people as possible think that the Miller-Urey experiment helped bolster the idea of a natural origin of life, and that information debunking the experiment must be buried where it is least likely to be noticed. And similarly, a cigarette manufacturer may have 95% of its ad telling you how great its cigarettes are, and only put at the bottom a little box telling you that cigarettes cause cancer.

Then there are the mainstream sources that claim that it doesn't matter that the Miller-Urey experiment used the wrong mixture of gases to simulate the early Earth's atmosphere, on the grounds that similar experiments using the correct mixture have produced similar results. Such claims are about as accurate as someone claiming that it doesn't matter that he got fired from his job, on the grounds that he has “similar methods of producing revenue,” while referring to things such as gathering bottles for cash or begging for money on the street. There has been no experiment realistically simulating early Earth conditions that produced any of the twenty amino acids.

An example of the extremely misleading treatments of the Miller-Urey experiment that we continue to see in the science literature can be found in the recent book Imagined Life by scientists James Trefil and Michael Summers. Here is a statement on page 38 of their book, a statement that is filled with erroneous claims. I will discuss its errors after I quote it.

Miller-Urey-type experiments have produced virtually every important molecule found in living systems, including stretches of DNA and protein molecules. And surprisingly, even though the consensus is that Miller and Urey had the wrong atmospheric composition in their experiment, it just doesn't matter. Experiments with different atmospheric compositions and different energy sources have produced essentially the same results, albeit with different yields, depending upon the assumed composition of the atmosphere. Furthermore, complex organic molecules (including amino acids) have been found in meteorites, in interstellar dust clouds, and even in debris disks which surround stars and in which exoplanets are forming. Against all expectations, in other words, the basic molecular building blocks of life are common – in fact, they're all over the place.”

Let us carefully examine these statements one by one.

Trefil and Summers statement #1: “Miller-Urey-type experiments have produced virtually every important molecule found in living systems, including stretches of DNA and protein molecules.”

This is one of the most outrageous falsehoods I have ever read in any book. Human beings have roughly 20,000 different types of protein molecules. Not one of them has ever been produced in a “Miller-Urey-type experiment.” No such experiment has ever produced any protein molecule. Miller-Urey-type experiments only produce individual amino acids, and the median number of amino acids in a protein molecule is about 375 amino acids. It is therefore not at all true to say that Miller-Urey type experiments have produced “stretches” of protein molecules, the word "stretch" meaning an "area or expanse." No Miller-Urey-type experiment has ever even produced a nucleotide, which is the basic building block of a DNA molecule (a DNA molecule has billions of nucleotides). So it is utterly false to say that such experiments have produced “stretches of DNA.”

Trefil and Summers statement #2: "And surprisingly, even though the consensus is that Miller and Urey had the wrong atmospheric composition in their experiment, it just doesn't matter. Experiments with different atmospheric compositions and different energy sources have produced essentially the same results, albeit with different yields, depending upon the assumed composition of the atmosphere."

It certainly does matter very much that Miller and Urey “had the wrong atmospheric composition in their experiment,” because such a thing invalidates their whole experiment, making it worthless as a guide to conditions on the early Earth. As for other types of experiments that were inspired by the Miller-Urey experiment, they all have a defect similar to one in the Miller-Urey experiment: they fail to realistically simulate early Earth conditions. Notice that Trefil and Summers merely vaguely refer to "different atmospheric compositions and different energy sources" rather than giving us the details of some specific experiment that realistically simulated early earth conditions and produced amino acids. They cannot give us such specifics because there has never been such an experiment.  

An example of such "Miller-Urey-type" experiments is the one discussed in this paper by Kobayashi and others. They subjected a mixture of carbon monoxide, nitrogen and water to two hours of "high-energy proton irradiation" of 3 million electron volts. This produced spherical micro-structures which yielded amino acids only after hydolysis with hydrogen chloride. Such a technique is not at all a realistic simulation of any conditions on the early Earth. No part of the early Earth was subjected to anything like two hours of high-energy proton bombardment, nor did any part of the early Earth undergo hydrolysis with hydrogen chloride. The authors did not even use a correct mixture of gases corresponding to the mixture believed to have existed on the early Earth, for their mixture used carbon monoxide rather than carbon dioxide. The authors state that a similar proton-bombardment experiment “did not produce amino acids” when a more realistic mixture of gases was used, consisting of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water.

Another paper sometimes cited as providing "similar results" to the Miller-Urey experiment (but with a realistic mixture of gases) is  the paper "Thermochemical Aspects of the Conversion of the Gaseous System CO2->N2->H20 Into a Solid Mixture of Amino Acids” by F. Hanic and others.  Such a citation is bogus, because the paper does not describe an attempt to simulate early earth conditions. The method described is quite technological, a  technique depending on electrodes and involving a "high voltage, spontaneously pulsing direct current electric discharge system operating in corona discharge geometry." Such a method involves fancy and specific gadgets, something much more complicated than anything that existed on the early Earth. 

Trefil and Summers statement #3: "Furthermore, complex organic molecules (including amino acids) have been found in meteorites, in interstellar dust clouds, and even in debris disks which surround stars and in which exoplanets are forming. Against all expectations, in other words, the basic molecular building blocks of life are common – in fact, they're all over the place.”

The authors refer to meteorites such as the Murchison meteorite. The claim that amino acids were found in that meteorite (in very small trace amounts) is disputed. The article here in Astrobiology magazine refers to scientists who are skeptical about such a claim, and who suspect that the amino acids detected are due to earthly contamination. No more than trace amounts of  biologically relevant amino acids have been found in meteorites.  For example, we read here that "glycine was the most abundant amino acid" found in the Murchison meteorite, and that it was found in an amount of only 3 parts per million.  

According to the source here, no more than eight of the twenty amino acids used by living things have ever been reported as being detected in meteorites. The traces of amino acids claimed to be deep in the large Murchison meteorite and similar meteorites are biologically irrelevant. Life couldn't start in the dry inside of a meteorite, and if a meteorite broke up catastrophically, any tiny traces of amino acids in it would probably be destroyed. Only one of the 20 amino acids used by living things has been found in an interstellar dust cloud: glycine, the simplest amino acid. The “basic molecular building blocks of life” are proteins, and no protein has ever been detected in outer space. There is no appreciable trace of 19 out of 20 amino acids in outer space. So it was misleading for Trefil and Summers to have said (referring to outer space), “the basic molecular building blocks of life are common – in fact, they're all over the place.”

After telling us on page 38 that "Miller and Urey had the wrong atmospheric composition in their experiment,"  Trefil and Summers on page 95 say, "We described the Miller-Urey experiment, which showed that ordinary chemical processes in Earth's atmosphere could generate the basic molecular building blocks of life."  This is what goes on in the science literature these days: make it look in one place that the Miller-Urey experiment proved something terribly important, but confess in some other place that the experiment had an invalidating defect.  The statement on page 95 by Trefil and Summers was as false as their mythical claim on page 47 that "DNA contains the 'blueprint' of the living thing in which it is found."  DNA merely contains low-level chemical information such as the amino acid sequence of proteins, and (as discussed here) DNA does not contain anything like a blueprint or recipe or algorithm for building either a complete body or any organ or appendage of a body. DNA does not even specify how to make any of the 200 types of cells in the human body, nor does it even specify how to make any of the organelles of such cells. 

So many faulty claims have been discussed or quoted here that the facts should be concisely summarized:

(1) Amino acids are not found in the natural world in appreciable amounts outside of living things. As scientist Menez stated, "No one has seen them occurring in terrestrial settings, neither in ponds nor in rocks." 
(2) No scientific experiment realistically simulating the early Earth has ever produced any of the 20 amino acids used by living things, with the exception of experiments (such as this experiment) producing glycine or alanine (the two simplest amino acids) at trace levels of 40 parts per million, or even smaller amounts. Except for the experiment producing only trace amounts of glycine or alanine, the only experiments attempting to produce amino acids have had one or more major defects, such as not using a realistic mixture of gases to simulate the early Earth's atmosphere, or exposing a sample of gas to utterly unrealistic energy exposures (such as continuous one-week electricity bombardments or 2-day proton beam bombardments) that no area on Earth would have been subjected to. 
(3) The famous Miller-Urey experiment was guility of three such defects: using an inappropriate mixture of gases to simulate the early Earth's atmosphere;  exposing such gases to continuous week-long electricity bombardments many millions of times longer than any spot on Earth would endure from a lightning bolt; and using a glass chamber to confine electricity in a way unlike anything that would occur naturally.
(4) The Miller-Urey experiment did not actually produce amino acids such as found in living things (all left-handed), but instead a mixture in which right-handed amino acids were as common as left-handed amino acids.
(5) Although accounts of the Miller-Urey experiment typically  described amino acids as "building blocks of life," the actual building blocks of microscopic life are proteins, things which typically require extremely specially-ordered arrangements of hundreds of amino acids (unlike houses which do not require that building blocks be used in some special order). 
(7) There is no geological, astronomical or meteorological reason for thinking that amino acids existed in anything other than negligible amounts before life existed, and there is no evidential basis for believing that there ever existed any such thing as a prebiotic "primordial soup" that was rich in either amino acids or the building blocks of DNA (nucleotides). 

For 65 years the mainstream science literature has had coverage of the Miller-Urey experiment that has largely been baloney. Very sadly, the coverage of the Miller-Urey experiment in scientific literature suggests that scientists and science writers will sometimes hype up a misleading pile of runaway praise and inappropriate accolades relating to evidence or arguments or experiments with very glaring defects, when such work seems to offer some result that seems to support some dogma that scientists eagerly wish to believe. 

Postscript: A recent experiment simulating a meteorite collision at 9 kilometers a second has produced the two simplest amino acids used by living things (glycine and alanine), but only in the scantiest of trace amounts (about 1 nanomole, about a ten millionth of a gram). The paper also mentions a retention time of only seconds (Figure 1). Another paper discusses an experiment attempting to simulate "soda fountains" on the early Earth. But the experiment produces only the tiniest trace (one nanomole) of glycine, and 60 nanomoles of alanine. 

The Miller-Urey apparatus included a special "cold trap" that isolated the amino acids created from being disrupted by the energy source. Such a thing does not correspond to anything that existed on the early Earth.  You might realistically simulate Earth conditions by having an outdoor apparatus the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, filled with millions of gallons of water.  By having the apparatus outside, you would simulate actual pond conditions,  in which water is partially replaced each month by rainfall and evaporation. With such an experiment, there would never be any concentration of amino acids, and no liter of water would ever have any more than microscopic traces of amino acids. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Day, 2085 AD: A Science Fiction Story

On Christmas morning young Alan woke up and went into Mom and Dad's room. 

"Look, it snowed last night!" said Alan. "It's so amazing that happened here in Phoenix."

"Why it seems like some kind of Christmas miracle," said Dad. He had actually paid the local Weather Control System to arrange for drones to drop the snow upon his yard the previous night. 

I can't believe it's finally Christmas morning!” said Alan. “Did you get me any gifts?”

Why don't you go check the Christmas tree, and find out?” said Mom.

Running downstairs, Alan saw several wrapped presents next to the rotating holographic Christmas tree. They were all wrapped most colorfully in video paper.

Wow, they're so beautiful!” exclaimed Alan. “I almost hate to tear off the paper and end the visuals.”

Long ago, children would get gifts wrapped in ordinary printed wrapping paper. The paper might have some Christmas patterns, but the patterns would not move. But nowadays all the children of richer parents got their presents wrapped in video paper. The special paper would show things that moved and danced across the paper. You might see a cute little reindeer image moving back and forth across the length of your gift, or a little image of Santa's sled flying across the wrapping paper, or a bunch of tiny snowmen doing a dance from the left side of your gift to the right side of your gift.

Go ahead, open one,” said Dad.

Alan picked up one gift, and took off the paper. He found what looked like a regular baseball bat.

A bat?” said Alan. “Thanks, but you know I'm no good at baseball. The kids make fun of me when I play.”

Well, that won't happen any more,” said Dad. “You see, this is a very special bat. It has some tiny electronics that will detect the path of the pitched baseball, and cause your arm to swing at just the right time. With this bat, you'll be the best hitter in every game you play.”

That's great!” said Alan. He then unwrapped another gift. It looked like a skateboard.

A skateboard?” said Alan. “I've tried those, but I'm not very good at it.”

Well, with this board, you'll be the best skateboarder in town,” said Dad. “This isn't a regular skateboard. It's one of those self-propelled 'auto-boards' equipped with ultra-batteries. You just have to hang on, and the board will do 100 astonishing skateboard maneuvers.”

Cool!” said Alan. He then unwrapped another gift. It was some clothes.

Uh, thanks, Dad," said Alan, not very happy about the style of the clothes.

“These aren't just ordinary clothes,” said Dad. “This is that new stuff called Chameleon Wear. The clothes will detect the style of the people around you, and automatically change to match their style. So no matter how much those crazy teen clothes styles change, you'll fit in with your group.”

“Programmable matter, I guess,” said Alan. “Thanks so much, Dad and Mom.”

There's still one more gift we have for you,” said Dad. “And it's a big one.”

Where is it?” asked Alan.

In the backyard,” said Dad. “It was too big to wrap.”

Alan ran to the backyard, and found the gift. It looked a little like the snowmobiles they used in the twenty-first century. But it had a  rocket exhaust in the back.

A sky-mobile!” said Alan. “What a great gift!”

This should be lots of fun,” said Dad. “But you've got to be very careful riding it. Riding a sky-mobile around in the sky is a lot more dangerous than riding a bike on the street.”

Alan insisted on taking a test drive of his gift. After donning a heavy jacket to protect himself from the wind, and putting on a safety helmet that came with the sky-mobile, Alan jumped into the pilot seat of the small rocket.



Now take it easy up there,” said Dad. “Just go around a little, and come back. Don't try any fancy stuff like loops.”

Don't worry, I got this,” said Alan.

Alan launched the sky-mobile into the air. With a mighty blast of its rocket engines, the sky-mobile rose up to a height of 100 meters. There was an auto-fly switch that would have guaranteed safe flying, but Alan neglected to turn it on. 

He's riding it pretty well,” said Mom.

But then the daring sky ride took a tragic turn. Having no experience in piloting rockets, young Alan put the sky-mobile into too steep a dive. It crashed into the ground in a great fiery explosion.

You and your big ideas!” said Mom. “Now we've lost our only child.”

Don't worry, I can fix it,” said Dad.

He took Mom into the garage behind their house, and turned on their 3D printer. He turned on the printer's voice response system.

Printer, please recreate our robotic son Alan,” said Dad. “Use the memory backup I made last night.”

Soon, it will be just like nothing happened,” said Dad

After an hour, the 3D printer recreated Alan, making thousands of quick passes that each deposited an additional layer of atoms. Mom and Dad placed the robot in his bed, and turned on the small activation switch on Alan's waist.

I can't believe it's finally Christmas morning!” said the new Alan. “Did you buy me any gifts?”

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Abiogenesis Would Be the Mother of All Improbability Explosions

"The mother of all" -- something regarded as the biggest, most impressive, or most important of (its kind).  
Collins Dictionary

Every computer programmer is aware or should be aware of the concept of a combinatorial explosion. The term refers to a situation where the number of possibilities rises exponentially, resulting in so many possibilities that it is impossible to test them all. For a computer programmer, the problem with a combinatorial explosion is that it results in so many possibilities that you cannot test them all before releasing your software.

The same idea is relevant to a chemist. Let's imagine a chemist is trying to determine the safety of various combinations of chemicals. Imagine that the combinations consist of three different chemicals from a larger set of chemicals. If the set of chemicals consists of only 20 chemicals, the number of possible combinations isn't very large. It is 1140. We can calculate that using the web page below (you can do a Google search for "combinations calculator" to find similar sites).


But imagine the set of chemicals is much larger. Suppose that there can be any combination of three chemicals from a set of 1000 chemicals. This results in a number of combinations equal to 166,167,000, as shown on the screen below.



This is an example of a combinatorial explosion. By merely increasing the size of the available chemicals set from 20 to 1000, we made the number of possible combinations increase by more than 100,000,000. The result is a set of possibilities too large to be tested.

Rather similar to the concept of a combinatorial explosion (but not too similar) is what we may call an improbability explosion. We can use the term “improbability explosion” to refer to cases in which the improbability of something skyrockets exponentially and geometrically, because of a simple linear increase in the number of things that must happen for the event to occur.

I can illustrate the concept by imagining that you and four friends buy five contiguous seats in the seats beyond the outfield of Yankee stadium. What is the chance that you will be able to catch a home run that falls and hits where you are seated? A reasonable rough estimate is about 1 in 4814. There are only 13,000 seats beyond the outfield in Yankee stadium, and there are  about 2.7 home runs hit per game. 13,000 divided by 2.7 is 4814. 

But what is the chance that you and the person to your right will both catch separate home runs in the same game? To calculate this, we multiply this 1 in 4814 probability by itself. This results in a probability of about 1 in 23,174,596.

Suppose that we try to calculate the likelihood that a line consisting of you and two or more of your friends (seated in a line) will all each catch a separate home run that lands where you are seated? The math looks like this:

Chance that you will catch a home run: 1 in 4814.
Chance that you will catch a home run, and that your friend to your right will also catch a separate home run: 1 in 23,174,596.
Chance that you will catch a home run, and that your two friends seated to your right will also each catch a separate home run: 1 in  111,562,505,144.
Chance that you will catch a home run, and that your three friends to your right will also each catch a separate home run: 1 in 5.37 X 1014.
Chance that you will catch a home run, and that your four friends to your right will also each catch a separate home run: 1 in 2.58 X 1018

We see here a good example of an improbability explosion. Even though it is isn't terribly improbable that any one of you five catch a home run, when we have the requirement that all five of you have to each catch a separate home run, the improbability rises geometrically and exponentially, finally resulting in an improbability that is essentially zero. The final probability of about 2.58 in 1018 is a probability of only slightly more than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. That is something so improbable, that  should never occur even if they keep playing baseball games for a million years.

Here is another example of an improbability explosion. Imagine you go to a crowded party, and don't know anyone's name. You play a game in which you guess the name of each person before asking the name of the person. The probability of success on the first try is not terribly low – maybe about 1 in 200. But imagine you are trying to get an unbroken series of correct guesses. The probability of guessing the first two person's names correctly would be about 1 in 200 times 1 in 200, or 1 in 40,000. But the odds would increase geometrically and exponentially, like this:

Chance of guessing correctly first person's name: 1 in 200.
Chance of guessing correctly names of first two persons: 1 in 40,000.
Chance of guessing correctly names of first three persons: 1 in 8 million.
Chance of guessing correctly names of first four persons: 1 in 1,600,000,000.
Chance of guessing correctly names of first five persons: 1 in 320,000,000,000
Chance of guessing correctly names of first six persons: 1 in 6.4 x 1013.

Again, we have an improbability explosion. Very quickly, we get to a situation where there is no reasonable chance of success. This required only a simple linear increase in the number of unlikely successes required. 


Pretty much the biggest improbability explosion we can imagine would be the origin of life from nonliving chemicals. Such a possibility is called abiogenesis. Scientists frequently claim that abiogenesis occurred, even though they have zero scientific evidence for such a claim.  

Scientists have never been able to make a living thing under conditions simulating the early earth, and scientists have not been able to even make any of the building blocks of a living thing under experimental conditions realistically simulating the early earth.  The building blocks of visible organisms are cells, and the building blocks of a microorganism are proteins. Scientists have not been able to produce proteins or cells in experiments simulating the early earth. In fact, scientists haven't even been able to make appreciable amounts of any of the 20 building blocks of the building blocks of microorganisms (amino acids) under conditions realistically simulating the early earth.  The famed Miller-Urey experiment that produced some amino acids used a mixture of gases (heavy in ammonia and methane) that is now widely regarded as not being the correct atmosphere of the early earth (as discussed here).  Such an experiment was never a realistic simulation of early Earth conditions, because it used continuous electrical bombardment for a week, and there is no reason to believe that any place on Earth ever received such a bombardment (lightning being something that only strikes any natural square meter no more than once or twice in a century).  Sequels to the Miller-Urey experiment using more realistic atmospheric mixtures (such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide) have never been realistic simulations of the early Earth, because they have depended on things such as 2-hour proton beam bombardments or strong electrical charges or artificial hydrocloric hydrolysis, things that do not correspond to what existed on the early Earth. 

To imagine the simplest living thing, we cannot imagine something like a virus. Viruses require living cells to reproduce, and biologists tell us that viruses did not exist until after living self-reproduced cells existed.  Nor can we imagine some mere self-reproducing molecule existing as a living thing before a cell exists. No such living self-reproducing molecule has ever been observed outside of the framework of cells, so the concept of such a thing is pure fantasy. Since it is a basic fact of biology that cells are the basis of all living things, we must imagine some kind of cell as the simplest living thing. 

A team of 9 scientists wrote a scientific paper entitled, “Essential genes of a minimal bacterium.” It analyzed a type of bacteria (Mycoplasma genitalium) that has “the smallest genome of any organism that can be grown in pure culture.” According to wikipedia's article, this bacteria has 525 genes consisting of 580,070 base pairs. The paper concluded that 382 of this bacteria's protein-coding genes (72 percent) are essential. So multiplying that 580,070 by 72 percent, we get a figure of about 418,000 base pairs in the genome that are essential functionality. This is all information that must be arranged in just the right way for the tiny microbe to be capable of self-reproduction. 

We can compare this complexity of the simplest self-reproducing organism to the complexity of a book.  A book of 250 pages has about 300 words per page, or about 1800 characters (or letters) per page. Such a book has about 450,000 characters. A single base pair in the genome can be compared to a letter or character in a book. So a rather good analogy for the simplest imaginable living thing is to compare it to a 250-page technical book, such as a 250-page book on how to build bridges or a 250-page book on how to construct computer programs using Java.  

What is the chance that such a thing could ever arise from a chance combination of chemicals? Such a probability is essentially zero. We have here an improbability explosion so big it can be called galaxy-sized. 

We do not get out of this jam by imagining that instead of having an inconceivably improbable arrangement of low-level chemicals, there might have been merely a combination of various functional proteins that happened to be floating about.  The functional proteins would not have existed prior to the origin of the first living thing. Before it folds into a three-dimensional shape, a protein typically consists of a sequence of hundreds of amino acids arranged in just the right way to achieve a functional end. If the existing genetic code is used, there are 20 possible amino acids that may be used in any position of this sequence. The average protein consists of about 375 amino acids arranged in just the right way to achieve a functional effect. Even assuming that merely half of such amino acids have to match the existing sequence of amino acids for the same protein functionality to be achieved, the probability of a protein appearing with similar functionality (based on chance combinations of amino acids) is therefore something like 1 in 20 to the 187th power, which is equal to about 1 in 10 to the 243rd power, or 1 in 10243.  That probability is essentially zero. 

You could summarize this situation by saying that the origin of each new protein molecule would require its own improbability explosion like the other improbability explosions I have discussed.  The origin of a self-reproducing cell from chemicals (requiring at least 300 different types of protein molecules) would require an improbability super-explosion consisting of at least 300 individual improbability explosions, each fantastically unlikely to occur. 

Calculations such as these actually vastly underestimate how big an improbability explosion would be required, because they assume an existing genetic code that limits the number of possible amino acids in a protein to only twenty.  But as a recent scientific article states,  "There are millions of possible types of amino acids that could be found on Earth or elsewhere in the universe, each with its own distinctive chemical properties....there are 1048 ways of making sets of 20 amino acids." 

What this means is that we vastly overestimate the likelihood of the first living thing appearing by chance if we imagine an analogy such as a typing monkey producing the book of 450,000 characters by randomly striking keys on a keyboard. For a monkey at such a keyboard would always have his keystrokes restricted so that there would be something like a 1/30 chance of typing a valid character. Given all the possibilities for the genetic code (with 1048 ways of making sets of 20 amino acids), a much better analogy is to imagine a monkey equipped with a pen and a 250-page book of blank empty pages. In this analogy, the monkey can make any type of mark, which may or may not be a valid character.  Similarly, chemicals randomly forming into amino acids (or base pairs representing amino acids) could make a vast number of combinations, with only the tiniest fraction corresponding to the twenty amino acids used in earthly proteins.  

The overall probability of a self-reproducing cell being accidentally produced would be incomparably smaller than the probability of a monkey at a keyboard producing a 250-page technical book all filled with relevant and coherent technical instructions. It would instead be more like the probability of a monkey equipped with a pen handwriting such a book, and producing the coherent 250-page technical book of useful instructions by making random scribbles on the blank pages. 


A scribble

How often would we expect such a result to be achieved by chance? Never in the history of the universe, even if there are 100 billion galaxies each containing billions of planets, and even if there were 13 billion years for such chance combinations. And similarly, if there were 100 billion galaxies each filled with 100 billion planets, and they were all populated with countless billions of monkeys scribbling on blank pages, we would not expect that any such monkey would ever produce even one full page with hundreds of words giving coherent technical instructions on how to do anything, even if there were 13 billion years for monkeys to engage in such scribbling. I haven't even discussed the issue of homochirality, an entirely separate requirement for abiogenesis, one that worsens the chance of it by very many additional orders of magnitude, probably making such a thing even trillions of quadrillions of quintillions of times less likely. 

And so abiogiogenesis (the imagined accidental origin of biological life from lifeless chemicals) must be described not merely as an improbability explosion, but the mother of all improbability explosions. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

We Keep Getting Reasons for Doubting Experts

There are very many examples of huge blunders by experts who dogmatically made unwarranted claims. In a previous post, I discussed 9 examples of disastrous expert blunders that caused huge deaths, enormous harm or gigantic risks. At various times in the past hundred years we had the following goofy and harmful examples of expert advice:

  • that we should keep fighting in Vietnam;
  • that we should invade Iraq to look for weapons of mass destruction;
  • that we should keep prescribing opioid medicines, on the grounds that they weren't very addictive (more than half a million have died from this blunder);
  • that we should keep building ever-more-destructive nuclear weapons (this blunder almost destroyed all of us);
  • that Vioxx (a medicine that ended up causing about 100,000 cases of heart problems) was a fine medicine to prescribe;
  • that the way to treat ulcers (now known to be caused by a microbe) was to live a more placid lifestyle;
  • that the risk of a Housing Bubble wasn't very great around 2006 or 2007 (shortly before that bubble burst in a trillion-dollar meltdown);
  • that eugenic recommendations (including things like forcible sterilizations) were important things to follow in public policy;
  • that stents should be inserted in arteries to reduce angina (after 100,000+ such operations to reduce angina pain, it was found such stents are not effective in reducing angina pain).

Despite the fact that some of these examples are very recent, many will say “that was then, this is now,” and will claim that we should kowtow to the pronouncements of today's experts. But we continue to get reasons for distrusting our esteemed experts. 

Recently the Washingon Post published a big story making it sound as if a fair fraction of the Afghanistan experts in the military-industrial complex have been pretty much lying their silly heads off from  the word "go" on the topic of the war in Afghanistan.  The long story is entitled "At War with the Truth." Below are some excerpts:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable....U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation....The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting....Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case....John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged to The Post that the documents show 'the American people have constantly been lied to.' “

For further evidence that our experts are making doubtful pronouncements, we may look in the world of health.  A November 2019 headline in the New York Times stated, "Surgery for Blocked Arteries Is Often Unwarranted, Study Finds."  The article reports, "The findings of a large federal study on bypass surgeries and stents call into question the medical care provided to tens of thousands of heart disease patients with blocked coronary arteries, scientists reported at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association on Saturday."

Then there is the matter of dietary advice. For decades food scientists told us that saturated fat in food is bad for your heart. You can still read the same story being pitched on current web sites of some of our leading authorities. For example, a current page on the site of the American Heart Association tells us that saturated fat is bad for your heart. It says:

"Eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood increase your risk of heart disease and stroke."

Later the same page makes a recommendation:

"The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat. For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fats. That’s about 13 grams of saturated fats a day."

This is a particularly stringent recommendation far more severe than the one made by some other major groups, which only recommend limiting saturated fat to less than about 10% of your diet. What is interesting is that in 2017 there was published a massive scientific study in the very prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, a study entitled “Associations of fats and carbohydrate intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 18 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study.” The study looked into the dietary intake of 135,335 individuals (a very large sample size for studies like this).

The study reached these startling conclusions:

"Intake of total fat and each type of fat was associated with lower risk of total mortality...Higher saturated fat intake was associated with lower risk of stroke...Total fat and saturated and unsaturated fats were not significantly associated with risk of myocardial infarction or cardiovascular disease mortality."

Note that this very large 2017 study produced results completely contrary to the claims of the American Heart Association web page. While the American Heart Association page insinuated that saturated fats increase your risk of stroke, the Lancet study found that “higher saturated fat intake was associated with lower risk of stroke.” While the American Heart Association page insinuated that saturated fat increased your risk of heart disease, the Lancet study found that this is not at all true.

This year there was another scientific paper that seems to cast great doubt on the dogmatic claims of the American Heart Association page. The paper (published on April 6, 2019) is a meta-analysis, which is when scientists simply methodically judge the results of previous studies. After applying various quality criteria to get the most reliable studies, the paper found 43 studies dealing with the relation between fat and heart health, and the paper summed up the net results of such studies.

The bottom line was this: the meta-analysis found “no association was observed between total fat, monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), saturated fatty acids (SFA), and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), and risk of CVDs [cardiovascular disease or heart problems].” So the meta-analysis told us loud and clear: the medical literature does not support the claim that there is a link between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Similarly, a 2010 paper stated, "there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] or CVD [coronary vascular disease]."  But the American Heart Association page is still towing the same line of "saturated fats are so dangerous." 

To understand why the American Heart Association keeps giving us a dogmatic story line without mentioning the evidence that conflicts with its claims,  you must understand the nature of overconfident stubborn biological dogmatism (something that is all over the place in our science literature). The biological dogmatist is typically someone convinced that he understands many of the deep mysteries of biology. Such a person will generally not admit that he erred merely because contradictory evidence appears. Failing to recognize the wise principle that “social proof is no proof,” such a person may believe that his dogmatic opinions must be right because they are shared by so many other of his peers.  If there is both evidence for and evidence against a belief he holds, the biological dogmatist is likely to only inform you about the evidence supporting his belief. 


Then there are our experts in the field of cosmology. One of their jobs is to tell us whether the geometry of the universe is one of three types of geometry: open, flat or closed. For the past few decades cosmologists have been dogmatically asserting that we definitely live in a flat universe. But a recent paper based on evidence from the Planck space instrument tells us that there are "betting odds of over 50:1 against a flat universe."

Then there are our experts in the field of physics. A very small but noisy minority of them these days teach the raving nonsense of the Everett "many worlds" theory, the groundless notion that there are an infinite number of parallel universes. Then there are physics experts such as Daniel Baumann, who recently made the utterly misleading claim that "there’s just no freedom in the laws of physics that we have."  A story about this person's ideas has been published in the science magazine Quanta, with the ever-so-false title "Why the Laws of Physics Are Inevitable." 

Nothing in the article does anything to support the goofy claim that the laws of physics are inevitable.  There is actually nothing less inevitable than the laws of physics. 

Consider physics from the standpoint of the three fundamental forces of nature indisputably relevant to life.  These are the forces of gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. There is no intrinsic reason why any one of these has to exist.  We can imagine without contradiction a universe in which there is no gravitational attraction between particles, no electromagnetic attraction or repulsion between particles, and no strong nuclear force allowing an atomic nucleus of multiple protons to exist.  There could also be any of a near-infinite number of other possible forces between particles. 

We can also imagine the rules associated with these three forces to be totally different.  Gravitation, for example, could be either an attractive force or a repulsive force.  Something like the strong nuclear force might be attractive or repulsive, and might have a range much different, forcing all electrons near an atomic nucleus to be dragged into the nucleus.  Besides having a totally different range characteristic (such as not acting according to an inverse-square law), the electromagnetic force could just as easily have any of these configurations (bold represents the actual configuration):

Proton to proton electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral
Proton to electron electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral
Proton to neutron electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral
Electron to electron electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral
Electron to neutron electromagnetic relation
Attractive, repulsive, or neutral

We could make the number of possibilites look three times greater by changing each "attractive" in the second column into "slightly attractive, moderately attractive or highly attractive," and by changing each "repulsive" into "slightly repulsive, moderately repulsive or highly repulsive." 

When we consider that each of the forces (gravitation, electromagnetic and strong nuclear force) has a contingent strength level that could be higher or lower by a factor of a billion times or more, we start to realize that the possible configurations of the laws of physics is nearly infinite. When we also realize that the masses and charges of the stable subatomic particles could be greater or smaller by a factor of a trillion or more, and that there could be any number of types of fundamental particles rather than just three stable types of subatomic particles in our universe (the proton, neutron, and electron), then we start to realize that the possible configurations for the ways in which fundamental forces could work is nearly infinite.  And such fundamental forces are only part of the laws of physics. 

The numerical values of the fundamental constants are "part and parcel" of the laws of physics, and such values are contingent numbers that have no necessity. We know of no reason why any one of them could not be any number between the actual value and a number a billion times lower or a billion times higher. 

So the "Why the Laws of Physics Are Inevitable" title of the recent Quanta magazine article is pure nonsense. Nothing is less inevitable than the laws of physics.  Our learned experts in charge of Quanta magazine are making a great big claim that is the exact opposite of the truth.  But that's what many an expert does, such as some neuroscience experts who preach the supremely goofy doctrine that consciousness or the self is an illusion. 

Having touched on the worlds of the military, medicine, physics and cosmology, I should also mention the field of chemistry, where our experts gave us the important blunder discussed by this press release on a NASA web site:

"For decades, scientists believed that the atmosphere of early Earth was highly reduced, meaning that oxygen was greatly limited. Such oxygen-poor conditions would have resulted in an atmosphere filled with noxious methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia....Now, scientists at Rensselaer are turning these atmospheric assumptions on their heads with findings that prove the conditions on early Earth were simply not conducive to the formation of this type of atmosphere, but rather to an atmosphere dominated by the more oxygen-rich compounds found within our current atmosphere — including water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. 'We can now say with some certainty that many scientists studying the origins of life on Earth simply picked the wrong atmosphere,' said Bruce Watson, Institute Professor of Science at Rensselaer."

For much of my lifetime, mainstream media sources have fed us misleading claims based on such experiments of scientists who "simply picked the wrong atmosphere" to simulate the early earth.