chemistry should not focus on the origin of life

March 18, 2011 at 10:16 am | | science and the public, science community

Several chemists (e.g. here and here) have recently suggested that the origin of life (OOL) should be the next big question the field of chemistry could tackle.

Here’s why I disagree:

  • OOL research is not (directly) practical. Studying OOL won’t directly result in new technologies, products, or cures that the public can use. I prefer the Deutch and Whitesides approach. There are more pressing challenges that chemists can contribute to solving (cancer, disease, chemistry of biology, global warming, alternative energy sources, etc.). OOL comes across as an intellectual pursuit for armchair chemists.
  • OOL is politically, emotionally, and religiously charged. The last thing we need is idiots trying to cut chemistry funding because their faith says something different than the science. Studying OOL is the perfect way to offend a bunch of folks and make the field of chemistry a target of religious nuts. I don’t think we should guide our research on what religious nuts want, but why kick the beehive?
  • OOL is basically unanswerable. We might be able to test theories of the OOL, but we won’t be able to observe the true origins of life on this planet. Until we invent a time machine. That makes OOL research speculative and uninteresting to me. And even if we could find out, who really cares? Will that change our day-to-day life? OOL seems like more of a religious question than one of science.

Of course, some chemists should work on OOL. Just like some physicists should work on counting the number of alternate universes. But I don’t think chemistry as a whole should devote a major portion of its efforts to the “big questions” like OOL and what the universe was before the Big Bang. Chemistry is a practical science that answers questions about our everyday life. Let’s harness that power instead of trying to be as “cool” and big-question oriented as physics.

There. I hope I offended everyone who works on OOL. :)

P.S. Harry Gray and Jay Labringer have a recent editorial in Science stating that the Big Questions in chemistry are harder to see. They suggest understanding photosynthesis as one of those Questions.


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  1. I think we are talking about two different things. My post did not advocate OOL studies as a practical pursuit for the majority of chemists (although it did highlight why these studies are chemically interesting). My post specifically made the argument that OOL should be pitched to the public as chemistry’s “big question” if we want to improve the public image of the science. Of course improving the public image of chemistry entails discussing chemistry’s practical benefits. But improving the image goes much beyond making the public appreciate the practical applications. Cosmology is the best example. Most of the public fascination with the science arises completely from its “big questions” perspective and has nothing to do with perceived applications. This is what OOL research will do for chemistry. Finally, chemistry is a much more practical science than many others, but science is also about simply understanding more about how the world works. OOL is yet one more example of curiosity-driven research that has always propelled scientific understanding forward.

    Now we may complain that chemistry should not model itself as a product for public consumption. But then let’s also stop complaining that the public does not appreciate chemistry because of its lack of big questions. This we won’t stop doing. So the bottom line is, if you want to pitch chemistry’s big questions to the public, OOL research is probably the best way of doing this.

    As for religious sentiment, it has not deterred two hundred years of research on all kinds of origins (physical, chemical and biological) from advancing and there is no reason why it should do so now or. In researching chemical origins we are not doing anything different from what evolutionary biologists or cosmologists are doing. Our purpose is not to kick up a storm, it is to find out how nature works, and religious backlash has never prevented us from doing this.

    Your third point is well taken. However, science is and has always been the “endless frontier”. Again, open-ended questions have never stopped cosmologists or biologists from tackling the big questions. And while we chemists do consider ourselves to be more dignified than other scientists, we are no different when it comes to grand ambitions ;)

    Comment by Curious Wavefunction — March 18, 2011 #

  2. “we won’t be able to observe the true origins of life on this planet. Until we invent a time machine.”

    So, we shouldn’t study any phenomenon that occurred in the past (galaxy formation, the Roman Empire, etc.) because a time machine is not available????

    Comment by MarcioMaia — March 18, 2011 #

  3. MarcioMaia, physicists can waste their time studying that if they want. chemists should focus on useful science. ;)

    Comment by sam — March 18, 2011 #

  4. Curious Wavefunction, i think precisely the opposite: we should not pitch OOL to the public. that will make some folks angry with chemistry, and other folks think that chemists are ignoring the pressing issues of our time. i think chemistry should pitch itself as the interdisciplinary science applied to understanding the world around us.

    chemists who study biophysics should loudly call themselves chemists (not biophysicists, even though that sounds sexier). “materials scientists” should call themselves chemists. if we take back the name, the public will see that chemistry is freakin’ awesome.

    on that note, i think it’s good that many chemistry nobel prizes in the last decades have gone to discoveries in the fields of biology and materials science. it opens the eyes of the public to the fact that most chemists aren’t just mixing stuff in a hood and watching beakers explode.

    Comment by sam — March 18, 2011 #

  5. Citing Whitesides is somewhat ironic:

    Comment by MRW — March 18, 2011 #

  6. And yes, I realize that you said “some” chemists should study the origin of life, that’s why I only say “somewhat” ironic.

    Comment by MRW — March 18, 2011 #

  7. I don’t think anyone will become any angrier than they already have; religious people always have a problem with every kind of science in one way or another and we cannot tiptoe around the edges at the expense of sacrificing understanding. Plus the real public anger with chemistry is not about OOL but about those scary entities called “chemicals”; that is what we really need to educate the public about. As far as religion goes, cosmology and biology have much more relevance to stepping on the toes of religious folks. And seriously, if the religious are really going to have a problem with how membranes and molecules self-assembled on primitive earth, that’s too bad! As Feynman said, if they don’t like it, they should go to a different universe then, where the rules are simpler, more psychologically satisfying.

    Ultimately it’s not “either/or” but “and”. Nobody would disagree that we need to pitch the interdisciplinary and practical nature of chemistry to laypeople. But by itself it’s not going to make the kind of impact on the public consciousness that physics and biology have made. People love to latch on to big ideas and chemistry can provide one in the form of OOL. An excellent book on OOL in this regard is Robert Hazen’s “Genesis” which does a great job of explaining the essential role of chemistry in OOL. We need more books like that.

    Comment by Curious Wavefunction — March 18, 2011 #

  8. Who cares about homochirality when there are so many other issues to consider? Sure, OOL is fun, but who is going to get a job with a degree in OOL research? Maybe they go the professorial route, that should be easy, right? Also, where is the cash to pay for the postdocs, gradstudents and overhead going to come from? Frankly, I think it is easier to get money for total synthesis (this extract has promising new anti-restless leg activity) than for OOL.

    In the end, modern science-in-education (most research of any worth is done on university campuses) is about two things: ROI for the government and jobs for the students/postdocs. OOL offers none of these.

    Comment by Bitter Pill — March 21, 2011 #

  9. “Tho shalt have no fun.” – god / sam. (just pokin’ fun.)

    Comment by jordan — March 21, 2011 #

  10. Yo opino que no se debe excluir o fichar como inutiles las investigaciones OOL, ya que son importantes, el quimico es una persona critica que no se basa en lo que ya esta dicho sino que trata de crear su propia interpretacion de ello, asi como es importante la investigacion de nuevos avances tecnologicos tambien lo es las investigaciones OOL, acercarnos cada vez mas a nuestros origenes es fascinante esto ayudaria muchisimo a responder los grandes interrogantes de la humanidad como el origen de la vida, pienso que para seguir avanzando mas en el conocimiento debemos tratar de aproximarnos lo mas posible que se pueda a nuestros inicios. Las investigaciones OOL no sobran son tan importantes como cualquier otro tipo de invstigaciones tecnologicas o novedosas, claro esta todo esto sin incluir ni mezclar las creencias religiosas.

    Comment by MAYRA ALEJANDRA PARADA LOPEZ — May 13, 2011 #

  11. In my weaker moments i think publishing in an area like this would be helpful for chemistry as a whole b/c when it gets picked up by major media outlets, it will give chemistry some good PR and maybe get some future scientists interested in pursuing a career in chemistry.

    But those are just my weaker moments.

    Comment by organic chemistry help — September 3, 2011 #

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