I like to read the obituary section of the newspaper occasionally to learn about recent history. I often don’t recognize the names of the people who have left their mark, but I did when the LA Times reported the passing of renowned chemist Stanley Miller. Miller’s seminal work in origin-of-life research in 1953—the famed spark-discharge experiments—catapulted the discipline into immediate respectability and popularity. As the article notes:
He drew on the work of University of Chicago chemist Harold C. Urey, who had suggested in 1951 that the early Earth’s atmosphere contained methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water—and no oxygen. Working in Urey’s laboratory, Miller placed the four gases in a closed system over a reservoir of water that simulated the early ocean. He heated the water to fill the system with water vapor and repeatedly passed an electrical discharge through the gas to simulate lightning. Within weeks, he had shown that spontaneous reactions in the system produced 13 of the 21 amino acids—the essential components of proteins—required for life.
A few things struck me (as a layperson) in this description. First, the words “closed system” made me wonder about a naturalistic scenario for life’s emergence. I see intervention in those words. Second, Miller repeatedly performed the electrical discharge. Can this type of repetition occur by chance to produce the 13 amino acids between 4.5 billion years ago (the age of Earth) and 3.8 billion years (the appearance of first life)? Third, 13 of 21 amino acids falls short of the required 21. Fourth, even if Miller had obtained the 21, it’s a monumental leap from those building blocks to life. Weeks of intelligent intervention had given origin-of-life research a jolt of energy, but in the decades since that time, little progress (naturalistically speaking) has occurred. Fuz Rana and Hugh Ross discuss the many problems associated with a naturalistic origin-of-life scenario in Origins of Life, including the lack of a prebiotic soup (see pp. 93–105). Still, RTB science scholars celebrate and benefit from Miller’s achievement. His diligence advanced understanding. Although the results—and the work since then—did not yield evidence for a strictly naturalistic origin of life, the research has allowed others to stand on his shoulders for a better view. That view seems to show that generating life from nonlife is no easy trick. Here’s Miller again in the LA Times article:
Making the amino acids made it seem like the rest of the steps would be very easy, he said in a 1996 interview with Reuters. It’s turned out that it’s more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s a series of little tricks. Once you learn the trick, it’s very easy. The problem is learning the trick.