Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Like, wow...

My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. 

Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. 

He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement. 

(Joe vs the Volcano, 1990)

Sometimes I feel as if I were almost about to wake up. Every year I give at least one lecture about how amazing biochemistry is, with lots of pictures of complicated molecules self-organised into fantastic systems, but I forget how *amazing* biochemistry is. It. Is. Amazing.

All this origin of life stuff focussing on replication as if that was the be-all and end-all, talking about the 'RNA world' or the 'protein world' or the 'Ke$ha world'[1], or whatever, as if any of those things could just fall together into existence somewhere - the people who talk like that are asleep.

The people who throw their hands up in the air and say 'it must have been a miracle', they probably just woke up once for an instant and were bowled over by the amazingness of it all.

I think the beginning was long ago and far away.

This is the minimum it needed.

I have no idea how many generations of life-not-as-we-know-it succeeded each other, each one nom nom nomming the remains of its predecessors, before life-as-we-know-it developed. I have no idea if life-as-we-know-it was designed in a test tube by some form of life-not-as-we-know-it.

But, I am pretty sure whatever happened was all complete before our solar system congealed out of a molecular cloud. I know there is *no point* working backward from life as we know it to get to the origin: we have erased our tracks.

I would like to work forward, but I don't even known what molecules to start looking at, since every organic molecule we see on Earth is part of a system that has comprehensively been worked over by living organisms for billions of years, making and breaking molecules to suit themselves. I know the molecules we see in space are the most common ones, and the ones exposed on the surfaces of things, so are not likely to reflect the complexity available there, and - I suspect - are also ultimately products of a carbon cycle comprehensively worked over by living organisms for billions of years.

Life is amazing.

The fact that the problem is immeasurably vaster and more complicated than we ever thought it would be does not mean it is insoluble. It doesn't mean we should give up and fall back on the God of the Gaps.

We should just live in a state of constant total amazement.

[1] ZOMG, there actually was a vaguely relevant link for that product of random neurons firing. Go figure.


Marco said...

One thing we can agree on is that drilling deep into comets is the most likely thing to give us some working evidence. I insist that a persistent energy source in the middle is the only way to enforce the dynamism required to stop the chemistry from trying to find a minimum energy state.

Marco said...

And I refuse to believe we erased tracks. If we don't find any tracks back on Earth, we jumped here from somewhere else (like you say) But there will be tracks left in places similar to those we jumped from fairly close.

Lexifab said...

Marco, your new comet obsession is starting to worry me. Don't you go doing anything crazy like launching a backyard spaceship to the asteroid belt to test your theories about extraterrestrial life.[1]

The problem with overwhelming awe - which I agree should be the natural reaction to the dizzying complexity of existence - is that it's very tiring. I can only spend so much time being stunned by wonder before I'm overwhelmed, and I lack the discipline to go along with my intellectual curiosity that would encourage an insatiable appetite for greater and ever more detailed comprehension of the vast unknowable all.

But there are moments, and those are more than enough.

[1] I lie. You should totally, *totally* do it. I will help in any way i can.

Marco said...

backyard spaceship to the asteroid belt
You obviously didn't properly read or understand my theories. A clear corollary to my theory is that asteroids are "dead" comets and the asteroid belt is a graveyard and nobody wants to look at dead alien life that you have to dig to the middle of asteroids to find. Now a manned mission to a comet - that would yield results. Put a good word in to Richard Branson for me so it can be funded.

Dr Clam said...

You're the hotshot entrepreneur, Marco - you have more of an opening with Richard Branson than us public servants do!

Marco said...

You're right. I think it would be a good sell for space tourism. You guys concentrate on the government agencies. Eg. Get Nasas next comet mission to dig at least 1 km through the permafrost, and choose a point closest to its gravitational centre.

Marco said...


Cometary behaviour

In February 1988, at 12 AU from the Sun, Chiron brightened by 75 percent.[13] This is behaviour typical of comets but not asteroids. Further observations in April 1989 showed that Chiron had developed a cometary coma,[13] and a tail was detected in 1993.[10] Chiron differs from other comets in that water is not a major component of its coma, because it is too far from the Sun for water to sublimate.

We need a few disposable razors that put the various unexpected (comet associated) scraps of data like this one. One question I ask myself is this - How would we recognise "metabolism" from the outside of a proposed alien proto-life or life-as-we-don't-know it. We have to make a guess as to the chemicals/waste products that would get in the way of autocatalytic cycles or various other primordial soup postulated reactions. Did the stardust sample return show a random selection of what would be expected the comet is made up of, or are they much more along the lines of inert inorganic substances that weren't even expected to be there? Do we have an A Priori idea that it cannot be metabolism, even though (all?) the scraps of data about active comets appear to be (well?) outside the mean of expectations for what we (still) consider to be pre-solar-system relics, virtually unchanged, since the Oort cloud was formed before the sun?

Marco said...

Johnston, W. R. Known populations of solar system objects: May 2010. Johnston’s Archive Fact sheet. Posted on June 19, 2010, accessed December 7, 2010

If gravity is the only force that influenced comet motion, however, then comets should have either crashed into the sun or escaped its pull and been spun straight out into space. The chances of a random placement of a comet into its eccentric orbit are tiny, a mathematical improbability multiplied by each additional comet that follows the same pattern. Earth’s solar system has 3,044 designated comets.
All gravitational models that try to replicate how comets got into their orbits (from a proposed oort cloud or similar) through gravity alone seem to not predict the quantity of the observed ones in stable elliptical orbits. At the very least the number and orbit of observed comets are nowhere near the mean of expectations predicted by any of the gravitational models used. I am trying to think of a naturalistic model in addition to Gravity that could give me another disposable razor, but I am back to my "intelligent amoeba" and controlled thrust again :-(

Dr Clam said...

Hey, it looks like the domain name is free, you should go for it! ;P

Marco said...

Comets exhibit metabolism and reproduction.... Discuss.

Marco said...

I am reading this book on chirality

because I refuse to accept that radioactive decay powering autocatalytic reactions involving amino acids is a "red fish" when it comes to the homochirality of life. I suggest Dr. Clam read it also, so that we can break this down further.