Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Origin Stories

Here's a podcast on the origin of life. Check out the website to see who's talking [Origin Stories].

For some strange reason the show begins with Greek mythology. Then it moves on to real science. There are three origin of life scenarios ...
  1. Darwin's warm little pond ... equivalent to primordial soup.
  2. Panspermia ... which doesn't solve anything.
  3. Hydrothermal vents ... which aren't explained
The moderator seems to think that primordial soup has problems and panspermia is a nonstarter but he doesn't explain the hydrothermal vent story and doesn't even mention Metabolism First.

The second half of the show features soundbites suggesting that the origin of complex organic molecules on Earth is a problem but they could form in interstellar space. But this is exactly the "problem" that Metabolism First tries to explain so it's puzzling that there was no advocate of this view on the show.

This is a complicated topic that is not compatible with the format of this show. How do you, dear readers, think it rates as science journalism? Is this a good way to get the general public interested in science?

The blurb on the website suggests that the series is highly rated by fellow journalists.
A show that explores the bigger questions. Winner of "Top New Artists" and "Most Licensed by Public Radio Remix" awards at PRX's 2011 Zeitfunk Awards.


  1. "Metabolism First" doesn't seem to get much exposure in the public without an expert present to push the idea. Organic molecules are fairly easy to wrap your head around (the broad concept anyway,) but I don't think most people really know enough about metabolism well enough to talk about it at all, much less in the context of abiogenesis.

    I haven't quite worked out how to express the concept to laymen yet (read: I probably don't properly understand the details and consequences of it,) but I'm a bit stuck on quite where to look to improve that situation.

    1. I'd say that the Miller-Urey experiments, and 'organic' meteorites, demonstrate simply that organic molecule synthesis is energetically favourable under certain conditions. But simply generating such by some gross and clumsy energy source, and sticking them in an ocean is not going to work due to diffusion.

      The magic ingredient, ISTM, is a local energy source. With local energy, you can generate local concentrations of more complex molecules. And I'd bet my hat on some kind of electron-transfer-associated proton gradient - which is readily visualised as a kind of 'pumped storage' scheme, closely analogous to storage of energy in a gravitational water system.

      So I think the key may be presenting energetic arguments - entropy, essentially, but forget about 'order' - and demonstrating how it is the enemy of the 'warm little pond' but the friend of local 'energy-conversion schemes', which can tap entropic gradients and exploit the demonstrable readiness with which many organic monomers will form, to generate local concentrations.

      Metabolism, ISTM, is all about the 'surgical' application of energy.

  2. How do you, dear readers, think it rates as science journalism? Is this a good way to get the general public interested in science?

    I don't know how about other shows of this kind, but this one was horrible (this is layman's opinion).

    It was very uninformative. They practically said nothing about those theories. They presented "three most realistic" theories out of "tons of candidates", but then said something like 'panspermia - meh, warm pond - I'm not sure, hydrothermal vents - yeah, I like it'.

    It was like listening to some guys discussing the meaning of life after some beers.

    Also it was very uglily editet.