History: May 15, 1953 and the mysteries of life’s beginnings

May 15, 2009

May 15, 1953, saw the publication in Science of Stanley Miller’s dramatic experiment showing that essential chemicals of life rise spontaneously.

The late Prof. Stanley Miller.  ISSOL photo

The late Prof. Stanley Miller. ISSOL photo

As usual, the real history is better and much more serendipitous than anyone could imagine in a fictional account; here’s an account from the International Astrobiology Society (ISSOL), from their 2003 celebration of the 50th anniversary of Miller’s paper’s publication:

The University of Chicago Chemistry Department seminars were held on Mondays in Kent Hall, an old building where the floors creaked and there was a smell of dust and mildew. Only the most distinguished scientists were invited to speak at this seminar, many had Nobel prizes or were to receive one, and the list included Franck, Urey, Calvin, Seaborg, Eigen, Libby and Taube.

But this day was different because a second year graduate student, Stanley Lloyd Miller, was speaking, and the room was full because the word had spread that something important was to be presented. In addition to the famous scientists and less famous but equally high-powered scientists was an undergraduate, Carl Sagan attending his first chemistry seminar. The topic was the synthesis of important biological compounds, using conditions thought to have existed on the primitive Earth.

Miller reported that by sending repeated electric sparks through a sealed flask containing a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water vapor, he had made some of the amino acids found in proteins. Perhaps, he suggested, this was how organic compounds were made on the ancient Earth before life existed.

While Miller was confident of his results, the rows of famous faces in his audience were, to say the least, intimidating. He was bombarded with questions. Were the analyses done correctly? Could there have been contamination? After the event, Miller thought that the questions had been constructive, but since the results were hard to believe, they had simply wanted to ensure that he had not made some mistake. However, Carl Sagan thought that Miller’s inquisitors seemed to be picky and did not appreciate the significance of the experiment. Even the relevance of Miller’s results to the origin of life were questioned. When someone asked Miller how he could really be sure this kind of process actually took place on the primitive Earth, Nobel Laureate Harold Urey, Miller’s research advisor, immediately interrupted, replying, “If God did not do it this way, then he missed a good bet.” The seminar ended amid the laughter, and the attendees filed out with some making complimentary remarks to Miller. Miller changed clothes, went back to the lab and started a paper chromatography run.

The events leading up to this dramatic seminar began two years earlier in October, 1951 when Urey presented the Chemistry Department seminar on the origin of the Solar system. In addition to the usual high powered scientists, the audience had contained the then first year graduate student, Stanley Miller.

Read “Prebiotic Soup—Revisiting the Miller Experiment” by Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano published in Science300 (2003) 745-726 in full text or as a PDF.

This is an abridged version of the Stanley Miller’s 70th Birthday published in Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 30: 107-112, 2000 by Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano and The Spark of Life – Darwin and the Primeval Soup by Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada, Perseus Books, 2000.

More than 50 years ago scientists demonstrated that basic chemicals of life, thought previously by some to be too complex to arise naturally, could occur in nature spontaneously. Much of the misunderstanding and crank science behind creationism is devoted to hiding these facts.

Lift a glass to Stanley Miller and his experiment today, a toast to learning, a toast to the truth.

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Phoenix has landed

May 25, 2008

Phoenix landed on Mars today at 4:38 p.m. Pacific Time. Confirmation of the landing took 15 minutes to get to Earth, radio signals traveling at the speed of light.

We have a robot scout on Mars again!

This is another of those teachable moments, an event to note in class that your students might tell their children and grandchildren about.

Artist's drawing of Phoenix, on Mars.Touchdown occurred exactly at the time programmed and predicted. Such accuracy might be interpreted as a good sign that NASA has anticipated problems, and a successful mission of discovery is in store.

The University of Arizona leads the discovery consortium on this mission (one of my alma maters). Educational activities and plans for teachers are listed at Arizona’s Phoenix Mission website.

NASA is the world’s biggest player in astrobiology, the science of figuring out how life could have begun, and where it might be. Astrobiology is one of the topics Texas’s State Board of Education threatened to remove from biology texts in 2003. That this mission has gotten this far is a sweet little bit of beneficial revenge on the anti-scientists who tried to gut the books then. Maybe it will pose a warning to them on the next go-round.

Teachers, strike a blow for science, knowledge and leadership in knowledge gathering: Teach your kids some astrobiology.

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