December 15, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week:  Comets as Life’s Lego Jumper Cables

Results of the Stardust mission made the cover of Science this week.1  The Jet Propulsion Laboratory put out a press release that condensed the abstruse papers into a simplistic story built around the L word life.  Publicist David Agle wrote for the Lego generation:

Just as kits of little plastic bricks can be used to make everything from models of the space shuttle to the statue of liberty, comets are looking more and more like one of nature’s toolkits for creating life.  These chunks of ice and dust wandering our solar system appear to be filled with organic molecules that are the building blocks of life.

The press release used the L word eight times.  His mixed metaphors spoke of comet minerals as everything from Lego blocks to toolkits to jumper cables (title, “Comets as Toolkits for Jump-Starting Life”) and even delivery trucks: “comets could have delivered nitrogen rich organic compounds to the early Earth where they would have been available for the origin of life,” a NASA scientist is quoted as saying.  The only scientific evidence mentioned was the presence of ethylamines and methylamines in the comet samples – fixed forms of nitrogen that would have been hard to come by on the early earth without complex enzymes called nitrogenases used in cells.  Biologists are still trying to figure out how they work (11/18/2006).
    The scientific papers themselves had little to say about life, except for one passing speculation, “The presence of organic compounds in comets and their ejecta is of astrobiological interest because their delivery to early Earth may have played an important role in the origin of life on Earth.”  That paper said no more about life.  The others talked almost completely about mineralogy, chemistry, comet origins and the puzzle of how hot-temperature minerals got into the cold outer solar system.  That subject is sure to make this issue of Science interesting to those keeping track of the recent revolution in comet origin theories.
    Ironically, the same issue of Science contained a setback for astrobiology fans.  Kieffer et al2 have found a way to account for the geysers of Enceladus without water.  Richard Kerr commented that this hypothesis “Puts a Damper on Chances for Life There.”3  Bad timing.  JPL had just produced a dazzling video for lab visitors, Journey to the Planets and Beyond, narrated by Harrison Ford, that mentioned Enceladus as a possible habitat for life because of its watery geysers.  In breathless suspense, Han Solo reads his script, “If true, the number of places in the solar system suitable for life may be much larger than ever before imagined.”

1Joann Baker, “Introduction to Special Issue: Looking into the Seeds of Time,” Science 15 December 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5806, p. 1707, DOI: 10.1126/science.314.5806.1707.
2Kieffer et al, “A Clathrate Reservoir Hypothesis for Enceladus’ South Polar Plume,” Science, 15 December 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5806, pp. 1764 – 1766, DOI: 10.1126/science.1133519.
3Richard A. Kerr, “A Dry View of Enceladus Puts a Damper on Chances for Life There,” Science, 15 December 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5806, p. 1668, DOI: 10.1126/science.314.5806.1668a.

Scientists writing for the journals should learn to be more careful about uttering the L word in their writings.  It tends to trigger a knee-jerk reaction in publicists and actors, causing an uncontrollable reflex ending with insertion of foot in mouth.  Sometimes the foot misses the mouth and hits the eye or forehead.

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