Tuesday, 21 March 2006

Genesis – Robert M. Hazen *****

Genesis is one of those titles that could have many meanings: in Robert Hazen’s book, all is made clear in the subtitle: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin. It’s not exactly a new quest – in fact attempts to explain our origin go even further back than the first book of the Bible, and there have been experiments trying to recreate the “primordial soup”, perhaps with a little lightning thrown in, for many years. Then there’s the idea that the basic organic molecules that would eventually lead to life arrived on the Earth in a meteor – originally posed by the great Fred Hoyle, and after much dismissal by biologists getting something of a revival in the twenty-first century.
What Hazen initially sets out to do is to test yet another theory. Now that life has been discovered around the boiling hot, high pressure vents under the sea, is it possible that life started under these sorts of conditions? It’s quite an attractive hypothesis. Getting the basic building blocks of carbon chemistry to work in a water environment is tricky without specialist catalysts – but could things be different under high temperature and pressure? Hazen, originally a geologist, is pulled in to provide an experimental test by a colleague.
Don’t be put off by the rather stodgy foreword and preface (the book would frankly have been much better without them) – jump straight to the prologue, which describes Hazen being pulled into the project, and his setting up an experimental test for the possibility in a warm narrative style. It’s very engaging, and good to hear, for example, of his struggle to seal a tiny gold pressure vessel (anyone who messed up experiments in high school or college science will feel great sympathy) and the cunning solution he resorted to.
After the prologue, things get slightly less personal as Hazen begins to expound the different ways of getting to an idea of how life was first formed, but bear with it – he’s soon back to anecdote mode. Hazen is particularly good at describing experiments. The reader gets a real and rare insight into what actually happens in a scientific experiment, as he describes using “everyday” technology ike a mass spectrometer, that’s pretty exotic to most of us. It’s impossible not to be caught up with his infectious enthusiasm as Hazen seems to skip from lab to lab, asking for a spot of assistance from different researchers, just as he himself is pulled into various pieces of work.
If this all sounds a touch idealized and lacking the less pleasant side of the scientific community, Hazen also gives us a wonderful description of a pair of scientists locking horns over conflicting interpretation of some evidence, one acting in way that verges on the scary, looming up near his rival as he gave a presentation and staring at him from beside the podium as if he were trying to put him off – it’s like a debate in the British parliament without the protective table and dispatch boxes to keep the two front benches from assaulting each other.
Although Hazen starts off with his “bottom up” attempt – start from nothing and create the elements of life, he gives plenty of coverage also to the “top down” approach of trying to work back through the fossil record to the most basic and oldest forms of life (it’s such a sample that’s under debate in the clash at the conference mentioned above). A fair amount of time is also given to emergence, the idea that complexity can develop from simplicity without guidance. The last few chapters of the book lose impetus a fraction, but are still highly readable. It’s a marvellous combination of expounding theory and leading us through the realities of experiment in a personal fashion. Highly recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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