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January 3, 2017

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January 3, 2017





   After the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species a scientific friend wrote asking about Darwin's thoughts on a missing link in his treatise: The origin not just of species of animals and plants, but life itself.


Bah-humbug, replied Darwin.


"It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of (the) origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter," he wrote his intellectual confidant Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1863. (Read the letter, it's wonderful.)


Darwin had good reason for leaving this gap.


The leading proponent of evolutionary theory had enough of an intellectual fight on his hands over the natural selection of creatures, like finches and fish, to wade into the deeper ecclesiastical waters of life itself.


But Darwin's argument was more scientific.


Nineteenth century chemists were still working out the structure of the Periodic Table, let alone the structure of DNA and amino acids. And natural historians were arguing about germ theory and whether or not life actually arose spontaneously every day.



Darwin didn't want to muddy the waters with speculation about something for which there was not only no evidence, but no way to test various hypotheses.


This is what's changed. Dramatically.


Darwin's intellectual descendants around the globe now believe the origins of life is a tractable problem. That collectively we can bridge Darwin's gap.


Hundreds of origins of life researchers world-wide are now theorizing, experimenting and computational modeling the possible routes for the origins of life on Earth on beyond.


Premises are being challenged and redefined - not Earth as a closed petri dish but a pale blue dot part of a living cosmic ecosystem. It's a scientific watershed I've called the Stardust Revolution.


And, in a clear sign that origins of life research's time has come, the money is flowing.


The New York-based Simon's Foundation is betting that 2017 is the time to help catalyze origin's-of-life research with major funding.


"It is likely that answers to important scientific questions may come in the next decade, making this a significant moment in the changeover that results from an influx of new talent, new instrumentation and a growing global community of researchers," says the Simon's Foundation.


It's the same story in Canada--where researchers at McMaster University's Origin's Institute received a major Canada Foundation for Innovation grant to build an experimental chamber to test theories of cell evolution--and across the Pacific at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.


It's a scientific quest in the finest sense of the word - something epic, exciting, adventurous, laden with meaning, enormously difficult and with no guarantee of success.


The quest for the origins of life pushes us into territory as much philosophical and metaphysical as biological--and this is why I find it so appealing.


To ask about "beginnings" is to step into a labyrinth of questions, like Alice down the rabbit hole into a world in which what was previously taken for granted: the line between living and non-living; the nature of the human spirit; the origins of consciousness.


It raises questions, concerns and reflections on everything from climate change to extraterrestrials, religion to death.


For those who think it's an impossible scientific knot to untangle, a thought:


It's notable that Darwin equated the probability of success in teasing apart the origins of life, with that of "the origin of matter".


Because this year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of the landmark paper "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars".


It describes how stars make the elements of the Periodic Table, or in other words, it's the discovery paper on the origin of matter.













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