"How did life begin?"
In the search for an answer to mankind's most fundamental question, Cyril Ponnamperuma travels to Greenland every summer. In a place called Isua at the edge of the polar ice cap, he and his fellow scientists gather up piles of what look like ordinary rocks.
But the "rocks" are 3.8 billion years old -- samples of the oldest known sediments in the world. With his staff, Ponnamperuma, who is director of the University of Maryland Laboratory of Chemical Evolution, carefully analyzes the sediments for traces of molecular fossils that might be similar to materials being produced synthetically in laboratories.
While some of Ponnamperuma's scientists are analyzing the sediments, others are working in the laboratories to produce a substance known only as primordial soup, described by Ponnamperuma as "the mixture of organic molecules from which we believe life evolved."
If the scientists discover a similarity between the molecules in the primordial soup and those in the Greenland sediments, "then our synthetic and analytical processes will meet at some point in the history of the earth," observes Ponnamperuma, and he will be one step closer to unraveling the chemical interaction that first created life.
Ponnamperuma and his staff, to put it simply, are about the business of trying to duplicate in their College Park laboratory that primitive chemical interaction that first formed a molecule capable of reproducing itself -- the scientific definition of life.
As a corollary, they are probing the question, "Is there civilized life outside our solar system?" Ponnamperuma is convinced there is.
"In all science, the single biggest question we can ask each other is, 'What is the origin of life?'" said Ponnamperuma. "We are the only comprehensive laboratory of this kind that is addressing this question."
Tucked away on the third floor of the chemistry building at the College Park campus, Ponnamperuma and his staff -- which varies from 15 to 25 scientists, researchers and students -- have spent the better part of the last decade searching for an answer to the question of how life began.
"This is a question which has been for ages in the mind of the philosopher and the thelogian," observed Ponnamperuma in a paper presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Houston. "But today we dare to approach this subject in a strictly scientific and experimental manner."
A native of Sri Lanka, the soft-spoken Ponnamperuma began his academic career as a philosopher. In fact, his first academic degree was in philosophy, earned at the University of Madras in India.
"It's nice to think I couldn't find the answers in philosophy, so I turned to science," he says, "but that really isn't the case. I've always been interested in chemistry."
With a doctorate from the University of London, Ponnamperuma, 50, has spent the better part of his adult life probing the mysteries of the origin of life. Before coming to Maryland he worked on the West Coast for the National Aeronautics and Space Agency.
Although his later training and research has been in science, his earlier work in philosophy is very much with him.
He is a student of various theories and myths about creation, and when asked how he squares what he is doing with the story of creation he is likely to answer, "Which one?"
In his Houston paper, he noted that theories of creation and spontaneous generation of life are as old as language itself. "The ancient philosophers of India described the oceans as the cradle of life. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, suggested that 'fireflies arose from morning dew.' Virgil describes 'a swarm of bees arising from the carcass of a calf.' There is a reference to 'the crocodile of Egypt born of the mud by the action of the sun' in Shakespeare's 'Anthony and Cleopatra.'
"You have the Eastern religions and the beliefs in transmigration. That's not unlike the scientific fact that the carbon that is in you now was manufactured by the stars 10 billion years ago.
"People sometimes ask me what the impact of my work will be on religion. I say none. It is the job of the scientist to gather information. The burden of interpretation is on the philosopher. You cannot probe matters of the spirit in a laboratory. That would be like trying to find a square root with a spade."
In addition to his work in the lab, Ponnamperuma teaches an undergraduate course to non-science majors at Maryland and conducts a weekly seminar on extraterrestrial life. "Each star that we see twinkling in the night sky may have around it a planet suitable for life," he says. "If that is indeed the case, the number of sites for life in the universe is literally astronomical. According to the most conservative estimate, 5 percent of all stars in the universe must have planets suitable for life. By the latest count, it is estimated that in our galaxy alone there may be a million civilizations."
Ponnamperuma lives in Northwest Washington with his wife, a native of northern India, and their daughter, a student at Sidwell Friends School. "My wife tells me I'm married to chemistry, but I am interested in art and music and I do a little gardening. Mainly, I like to do a little bit with my roses, but occasionally I try my hand at growing something else," he says.
He also is president of the Sri Lanka Overseas Foundation, an organization of expatriots working to help Sri Lanka in science and the humanities. In Washington, Ponnamperuma is a member of the Cosmos Club, where he "tries to take some part in the activities downtown," and at Maryland he chairs a program for international activities at the College Park campus.
By his own description, he "reads everything that comes my way."
But for the most part, he continues looking for the origin of life. "The moment somebody comes up with a replicating molecule in a laboratory, we'll have it," says Ponnamperuma. "It could happen soon. It could be a long way off."
Until that day comes, Ponnamperuma and his scientists will continue their summer trips to Greenland and their brews of primordial soup.
Appropriately, Isua, where scientists find those pieces of (Word Illegible) , is an Eskimo word that means "the farthest you can go." The Eskimos meant it in a geographical sense, Ponnamperuma observes, but for the purposes of his research it's also accurate in a chronological sense.
To brew the primordial soup, Ponnamperuma attempts to simulate a primitive atmosphere composed mainly of methane gas and amonia, then subjects it to electrical charges. After 24 hours, what he has left is a dark brown material that most chemists throw away as "goo or gunk." That's the stuff his chemists analyze for chemicals of biological significance.
When the Smithsonian Institution opened its Air and Space Museum on July 1, 1976, they decided to include Ponnamperuma's primordial soup in an exhibit on the origin of the universe. Since it is, after all, a soup, someone had the bright idea of having Julia Child explain how it's made, as if it were one of her recipes, and a film crew recorded her explanation.
"She did a rather good job," said Ponnamperuma.