Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Primordial soup sent back to kitchen?

We are told, “New Research Rejects 80-Year Theory of 'Primordial Soup' as the Origin of Life”:
ScienceDaily (Feb. 3, 2010) - For 80 years it has been accepted that early life began in a 'primordial soup' of organic molecules before evolving out of the oceans millions of years later. Today the 'soup' theory has been over turned in a pioneering paper in BioEssays which claims it was the Earth's chemical energy, from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, which kick-started early life.

"Textbooks have it that life arose from organic soup and that the first cells grew by fermenting these organics to generate energy in the form of ATP. We provide a new perspective on why that old and familiar view won't work at all," said team leader Dr Nick lane from University College London. "We present the alternative that life arose from gases (H2, CO2, N2, and H2S) and that the energy for first life came from harnessing geochemical gradients created by mother Earth at a special kind of deep-sea hydrothermal vent -- one that is riddled with tiny interconnected compartments or pores."

[ ... ]

"Despite bioenergetic and thermodynamic failings the 80-year-old concept of primordial soup remains central to mainstream thinking on the origin of life," said senior author, William Martin, an evolutionary biologist from the Insitute of Botany III in Düsseldorf. "But soup has no capacity for producing the energy vital for life."
So, soup is mainstream but produces no energy? Well, at least it is now safe to say that. Thankfully, the undersea smokers are hot. The soup isn’t.

Origin of life: O he of simple faith

I was impressed by the studies made after the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helen's in Washington State, which destroyed all life for many kilometres around. Within a remarkably short time, nasty hot, evil-looking pools around the volcano were teeming with life in the form of bacteria and blue green algae. These are exactly the kinds of organisms that we know from the earliest records of life on Earth. The necessary original formula must have been one of chemistry and heat in a watery environment.

- D. V. Ager, The New Catastrophism: The Importance of the Rare Event in Geological History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge UK, 1993, p. 149.
It really does take a lot of faith to think that the most ancient organisms could just appear in the same way that existing organisms spill into a new territory, taking advantage of the fact that the more complex organisms that usually constrain their activities, are temporarily absent.

If “chemistry and heat in a watery environment” were the solution to the origin of life, life would be popping up from nothing far more often than it does.

Hat tip: Stephen E. Jones.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Change your wall charts, chemistry teachers, ...

Atomic Weights of 10 Elements on Periodic Table About to Make an Historic Change

ScienceDaily (Dec. 16, 2010) — For the first time in history, a change will be made to the atomic weights of some elements listed on the Periodic table of the chemical elements posted on walls of chemistry classrooms and on the inside covers of chemistry textbooks worldwide.

For more, go here. Free IUPAC .pdf report here.

Origin of life: At least one swish of chemicals must win the lottery ...

Friend Stephen E. Jones was reading The Origin of Life by Paul Davies (2003) and came up with this nice paragraph:
Many investigators feel uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled. There seems to be two reasons for their unease. Firstly, they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations. Secondly, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding, especially for the search for life in space.

- Paul Davies, The Origin of Life, Penguin Books, London, 2003, p. xxiv
He comments,
An interpretation of this is that origin of life researchers don't tell in public that they are in a crisis, because if they did so, they would give ammunition to Intelligent Design and lose a great deal of money ...

They are die-hard materialists in both senses.
Actually, most people would probably cheer them on if they did find the origin of life, but the reason it is a mystery is their unwillingness to consider whether some features are best explained by design. They want chance to do the legwork, which is somewhat like wanting to get rich on one lottery ticket win.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Do you have to be an American liberal to believe in extraterrestrials?

Yes, folks, I thought this was Hoax News at work too.

But Michael Medved reports,
These clashing opinions on extraterrestrials amount to more than a trivial split on an arcane topic; they connect, in fact, both logically and emotionally to big conflicts over worldview, culture, politics and America’s role in history.

In Colorado, these conflicts erupted in a recent battle over a proposed Denver commission to investigate visitations from alien life forms. Initiative 300 won enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in November 2010 but lost in a landslide, with conservatives leading the derision of the “ET Initiative,” as a loony waste of taxpayer money. The chief support for “greater transparency” regarding sightings and encounters came from the city’s Bohemian left, with advocates proudly citing the interest in flying saucers from liberal icons like Jimmy Carter and John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff.

Polls show that Americans remain closely divided on attitudes toward extraterrestrials, with a 2008 Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll reporting 56% who believe it is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that intelligent life has developed in other worlds. Self-described Democrats (according to the same survey) are far more likely to say they have personally seen “visitors from another world” than are their Republican counterparts, who remain distinctly skeptical.

For more, go here.
A most interesting discussion follows.

Of course the Initiative is a waste of money! If the ETs really wanted to talk to us ... well, like I always advise, in matters of the heart: If he’s there and if he cares, he’ll phone. He knows you want to hear from him. So, if you don’t ...

By the way, I hope it’s not true that Jimmy Carter spent a lot of time thinking about ... flying saucers?? ... when he was president. Didn’t he have, like, “issues” to address? I recall something about the Ayatollah Khomeini holding American hostages back then ... Ring a bell?

For more stories on extraterrestrials, go here.

Note: This sounds kind of preachy,but it is important to distinguish between "space aliens" as above, and the possibility of primitive life on other planets. The latter is a question on which information from science has  a bearing; the former an article of faith, based on other beliefs.

More from the “and then rain just sort of fell” thesis on the origin of life

Stephen E. Jones  has noted,

Using information theory, astrophysicist Edward Argyle calculated the probability that a single organism arose on the early Earth by chance. Argyle concluded: “It would seem impossible for the prebiotic Earth to have generated more than about 200 bits of information, an amount that falls short of the 6 million bits in E. coli by a factor of 30,000.”

- Edward Argyle, “Chance and the Origin of Life”, Extraterrestrials – Where Are They?
Cambridge University Press, 199, p. 131.

Photo: Stromatolites, fossils of some of the earliest known life forms, US government, public domain

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More coffee!! And news that is, happily, of no consequence to anyone ...

Major storm on Saturn in progress:
Space Weather News for Dec. 28, 2011

BIG STORM ON SATURN: Got a telescope for Christmas? Point it at Saturn. A giant storm even brighter than Saturn's rings is raging through the planet's cloudtops. Amateur images and sky maps are featured on today's edition of

GEOMAGNETIC STORM IN PROGRESS: At the time this alert is being written (mid-day UT on Dec. 28), a polar geomagnetic storm is in progress (Kindex=5). Observers report electric currents in the ground and intensifying Northern Lights over Scandinavia. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras:.

Extraterrestrial life Life is simple All ya gotta do is ...

The simplest known organism which is capable of independent existence includes about 100 different genes. For each of 100 different specific genes to be formed spontaneously (in 10 billion years) the probability is 2 raised to the power of -100 raised to the power of 100 (or one chance in 10 followed by 3,000 zeroes). For them to be formed at the same time, and in close proximity, the probability is much lower.”

- Michael Hart, "Atmospheric Evolution, the Drake Equation and DNA: Sparse Life in an Infinite Universe" Extraterrestrials – Where Are They? (Cambridge University Press, 1995 pp. 222-223)

Oh wait, let me check my notes.

For other extraterrestrial life stories, go here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

No satellite hookup needed for this show, if the sky is clear

NASA Science News for Dec. 17, 2010

Northern winter is beginning in a special way. On Dec. 21st, the winter solstice, a lunar eclipse will be visible across all of North America.
The luster will be a bit "off" on Dec. 21st, the first day of northern winter, when the full Moon passes almost dead-center through Earth's shadow. For 72 minutes of eerie totality, an amber light will play across the snows of North America, throwing landscapes into an unusual state of ruddy shadow.
The eclipse begins on Tuesday morning, Dec. 21st, at 1:33 am EST (Monday, Dec. 20th, at 10:33 pm PST). At that time, Earth's shadow will appear as a dark-red bite at the edge of the lunar disk. It takes about an hour for the "bite" to expand and swallow the entire Moon. Totality commences at 02:41 am EST (11:41 pm PST) and lasts for 72 minutes.
If you're planning to dash out for only one quick look - it is December, after all - choose this moment: 03:17 am EST (17 minutes past midnight PST). That's when the Moon will be in deepest shadow, displaying the most fantastic shades of coppery red.

FULL STORY here. And here's the lunar eclipse photo gallery.

Entertain children the old-fashioned way. Don't buy them something. Show them a wonder that belongs to everyone. Then give the money to children's education in developing countries.