Are our scientific principles fundamentally wrong? | Latte Guy | Dec. 10
December 10, 2010 · Updated 3:06 PM
Many people are understandably uncomfortable with the evidentiary squishiness and inherently unprovable assertions of religion and the “soft sciences” such as sociology and psychology.
Some people manifest that discomfort by claiming to believe only in those things which can be empirically proven to be true and irrefutable, things that typically lie within the realm of the “hard sciences” such as math, biology, chemistry and physics, areas dominated by laws, principles, rules and other proven certainties rather than loosey-goosey theories, hypotheses and beliefs.
Everyone takes some comfort from the unchanging basic rules of life: the circumference of a circle is its diameter times pi; energy equals mass times the speed of light squared; the earth orbits the sun once every 365 days; objects in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by outside forces; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; guys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.
And, of course, all life on Earth is composed of at least six elements – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus.
Wait. Check that last one.
It turns out that one of the bedrock rules of biochemistry – that all life on Earth, from microbes to mankind, is based on a single genetic model, a model which requires the presence of phosphorus as one of its essential components – is simply not true.
Researchers at NASA and the National Astrobiology Institute at Arizona State University recently discovered a bacterium living in California’s Mono Lake that has five of the essential elements of life on Earth, but has replaced the sixth – phosphorus – with its look-alike but toxic cousin, arsenic, thus breaking the hitherto sacrosanct unity theory of biochemistry.
Because of its unique geomorphology, Mono Lake has concentrations of arsenic 700 times greater than what the EPA considers safe, which is why it was selected as the site for this study.
This discovery has major implications in the search for extraterrestrial life in that it means that we may be looking for the wrong things in space.
But it also has earthly implications as well, in that it at least allows for the possibility that life on Earth may have evolved from not one, but multiple common ancestors.
In other words, us carbon-based life forms may be co-existing here on Earth with a “shadow biosphere,” creatures from a second genesis, a strain of life not evolved from the same primordial ooze from which all other known life on Earth evolved – from oysters to dogs to dinosaurs to Mitch McConnell and Tom Cruise.
One of the authors of the groundbreaking research paper, theoretical physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies of the Beyond Center at ASU, isn’t quite ready to say for sure whether the Mono Lake arsenic-lovin’ bacterium isn’t just some freakish, bizarre accident confined to this one spot on Earth.
Or whether this new life form is a natural part of a fundamentally biofriendly universe in which life pops up wherever there are Earth-like conditions.
We don’t know yet whether this thing is just some weird branch on the same tree of life or a totally different tree.
This discovery raises several intriguing questions. First, is not “Theoretical Physicist and Cosmologist at the Beyond Center” possibly the coolest job title ever?
Second, if you are thinking about going camping at Mono Lake anytime soon, don’t eat the fish, and bring plenty of Bactene.
Finally, if at this point in history we can find a life form that breaks all the known rules of biochemistry, then what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet? Dolphins that can talk and play Parcheesi? Shrimp that can peel and boil themselves? Progressive Democrats with a functioning backbone?
More importantly, if it turns out that we can be wrong about a fundamental principle in one of the hard sciences, then maybe we can also accept the possibility that we might be wrong about some of the less scientific beliefs we hold in other areas.
The evils of gay marriage? Tax cuts for the very wealthy? White wine with red meat?
The possibilities are endless.
Tom Tyner is an attorney for the Trust for Public Land. He is author of “Skeletons From Our Closet,” a collection of writings on the island’s latte scene.