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The Origin of Life? All in a Day's Work

"This whole hype on hydrothermal systems and everything is just bogus," says Jeff Bada, professor of marine chemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego and the most prominent protege of Miller. "I think he oversells this." Bada questions an experiment that Hazen and his colleagues conducted in which they managed, in mimicking deep-sea pressures and temperatures, to create an important biomolecule called pyruvate: "I have some strong questions about whether that experiment is even valid. We haven't been able to repeat it."

Hazen denies overselling anything.

"Bada has for a long time felt he has enemies here. . . . It's been very strained. It's been very antagonistic."

Why is the field so contentious?

Hazen says, "I've heard it said that the less certain we are about a field of knowledge, the louder we have to shout to get our point across. Back when I was doing crystallography, no one shouted. And maybe that's why it was a little boring."

Nothing's ever dull in the OOL world.

Science as an enterprise has persisted and grown over the past half-millennium largely due to its ability to get things right -- eventually. Weak theories wither on the vine, starved for experimental support. Good theories thrive. There's a kind of natural selection at work; even the theory of evolution has evolved, and become stronger, as observation and experiment show how evolution works.

Hazen says, "Ultimately the truth comes out." But some questions are harder than others. Life began on Earth a long time ago, maybe as long as 4 billion years ago. Someone can always show how it could have happened, but as Morowitz puts it, "Will we ever know what happened historically 4 billion years ago? No."

And so the debate over the beginning will probably never come to an end.

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