21.2.13

SEEING STARDUST

Jacob Berkowitz. The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars, Prometheus Books, 2012.

Until recently astronomy and biology were two entirely separate subjects, but there is now an increasing tendency to connect the study of the evolution of stars and planets to the study of the evolution of living organisms.

To attempt to trace the processes which eventually led to the origin of life, it was first necessary to devise a sound theory to account for the origin of the elements. George Gamow, a Russian who had emigrated to the United States and obtained a position at George Washington University, believed that all the elements were formed at the birth of the universe, in what became known as the big bang. However, there were problems with the details of this theory, mainly that there was no element with an atomic weight of 5 or 8.

Fred Hoyle did not like the idea of the "big bang", and believed that the elements were formed in the stars. Gamow's argument was basically that stars were not hot enough to produce the heavier elements but Hoyle calculated that they could be created in supernova explosions. He worked closely with other scientists, including William Fowler, to prove this, but he did not share the resulting Nobel Prize with Fowler as many had expected. This was probably because of his increasing interest in fringe subjects, such as viruses from outer space.

Although there are explanations of the origins of the elements and the formation of complex carbon compounds there is still something missing. On reading Darwin's presentation of the evidence for the evolution of living organisms in his On the Origin of Species, the German natural philosopher Ernst Haeckel commented in 1862: "The chief defect of the Darwinian theory is that it throws no light on the origins of the primitive organism--probably a simple cell--from which all the others have descended".

Darwin believed that it was impossible for scientific testing to show how life originated, and many biologists of today agree with him. However, it is now clear that complex carbon compounds essential to life are delivered to Earth by meteorites. For example, in the Murchison Meteorite which crashed in Australia in 1969, scientists found about 500 kinds of organic molecules, but recently a research group has used a higher-precision method of analysis and has found more than 14,000 types of molecules in a small sample.

Scientists are now attempting to solve the problem of the origin of life by attempting to make artificial organisms in their laboratories. There are also attempts to see if planets in other solar systems support life. This can be done by getting information about the gases in the atmospheres of these planets. If these gases are in disequilibrium, this could be an indication of biological processes. For instance, an atmosphere rich in oxygen would be a good indicator of life, as the free oxygen in Earth's atmosphere would tend to disappear by combining with other substances if it were not constantly renewed by photosynthesis from green plants.
 
Jacob Berkowitz has provided lucid explanations of complex scientific theories and research efforts, together with fascinating details of the scientists who have carried it out and who are at present engaged on this research. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in science and scientists, and I would particularly recommend it to anyone considering a scientific career, as it gives a very clear account of the careful way in which scientists conduct their research. -- John Harney
 

1 comment:

  1. "Every man and every woman is a star."--The Master Therion (Aleister Crowley)

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