December 6, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Origin of Life: Food for Queazy Thought

New theories of the origin of life seem to come and go like fashion trends.  A biochemist at University of California at Santa Barbara (Helen Hansma) put out a new plot line about biomolecules forming between the protective flakes of mica.  This was all Dave Mosher at Live Science (see reprint on MSNBC) needed to tease the reader’s taste buds:

Soup and pizza couldn’t explain the origins of life, so a researcher built a sandwich of an idea instead.
    The new hypothesis describes how flaky layers of the mineral mica could have created the perfect conditions to jump-start the formation of molecules necessary for life….

Mosher should not be blamed for the menu, because these are exactly the metaphors Hansma herself used:

“Mica is like a massive sandwich with millions of layers of mineral sheets, which would be the bread,” Hansma said.  “The nooks and crannies between the bread may have jump-started the formation of life’s chemicals and protected them.  It’s like a giant potluck of chemistry.
    This story was echoed by National Geographic News and

So Helen wins the award, and Mosher is just the assistant cook.  He pointed out that she had to make the pizza and soup seem distasteful first: “To address these shortcomings, Hansma merged the soup and pizza ideas to create her sandwich hypothesis.”  Does that mean he is offering us a wet, cheesy sandwich?

Origin-of-life researchers occasionally raise another plot line up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes.  It’s only a way of distracting the public into thinking progress is being made.  All the old criticisms still apply, and some new ones, also.
    Hansma “cautioned that significant work lies ahead” (job security for storytellers) “before she can make the hypothesis appetizing to other scientists.”  This will take awhile, since many first have to recover from severe indigestion jump-started by the thought of pizza, soup and a giant potluck of chemistry in a mica-bread sandwich.

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Categories: Dumb Ideas, Origin of Life

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