Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Usefulness Of Research, And A Confession!

A recent opinion in Chemistry World focused on the issues of the practicality of turning ideas into useful technologies. One of the arguments seemed to be that curiosity driven science was giving the world a false sense of what could be achieved, and worse, was taking funding away from where it could be more usefully spent. As usual in such issues, there are several ways of viewing the issue. First, look at the issue of why scientists make some of the outrageous claims. In my view, the answer is simple. It is not because the scientists have lost track of thermodynamics as implied in the article (although I guess some might) and it is not because they are snake-oil merchants. My guess is that the biggest reason is dressing up work to satisfy the providers of funding. Let me confess to one example from my own past.
My very first excursion into "the origin of life" issue came in the 1970s. I was supposed to be working on energy research, but funding was extremely tight, energy research needs expensive equipment that we did not have, so there was scope to do experiments that did not cost much. Gerald Smith and I had seen that the theory of the initial atmospheres required it to be carbon dioxide, which was thermodynamically very bad for biogenesis in terms of energy. Carbon dioxide is what life gets rid of at the bottom of the energy chain and is only returned to life by photosynthesis. So, if the geologists were correct, how did carbon biogenic precursors form from such an unpromising start?
Our idea was that the carbon dioxide could still be reduced through photochemistry. Water and carbon dioxide attacks olivine, and somewhat more slowly, pyroxenes, to dissolve magnesium ions and ferrous ions, and the concept was, Fe II and light would reduce CO2 to formic acid and thence to formaldehyde, whereupon the magnesium carbonate could help catalyse the Butlerov type reactions. So, we did some photochemistry, and persuaded ourselves that we were reducing CO2. It was then that a thought struck me. The Fe II must end up as Fe III, and what would Fe III do to organic materials? The answer was reasonably obvious: try some and find out. So we irradiated some dilute sugar with Fe III, and the carbohydrates simply fell to pieces, with an action spectrum corresponding to the spectrum of the iron complex. Many other potential biochemical precursors suffered the same fate. So, we wrote up the results, but then came the question, how were we going to justify this work? Well, since energy was the desired activity, we wrote a little comment at the bottom of the paper about the potential of photochemical fuel cells.
Did we think this was realistic? No, we did not. Did we think there was any theoretical possibility? Yes, while outrageously unlikely, it remained possible. Did it satisfy the keepers of returns to funding sources? Yes, because they never read past the keywords. You may say there was a little duplicity there, but first, this work cost very little and it did not distract us from doing anything else. We used equipment that otherwise would have been doing nothing, and the only real costs were trivial amounts of chemicals and the time spent writing the paper, because that was a real cost. Was the result meaningful? I leave that to you to decide, BUT for me, it was because it set me off realizing that the standard theory of atmospheric formation cannot be right. The carbon source for life could not have come from carbon dioxide initially, because in getting to reduced carbon from the most available source in the oceans, a much worse agent from the point of view of biogenesis was formed. Had we been able to show how CO2 could be the carbon source for biogenesis, I think that would have been interesting, but just because you fail in the primary objective, that does not mean the time was wasted. The recording of the effects of a failed idea are just as valuable.
Posted by Ian Miller on Nov 10, 2013 10:51 PM Europe/London

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