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Origin of Life, the Pack and the Prize

“Loaded with bias is the review process reserved for the big projects. The review is run by the “leaders,” the persons who head (or have headed) the big projects. They are the influential, the ones who are consulted during the review process and even before a new research initiative is selected for funding. . . . They are many, not one. They constitute a social stratum known colloquially as academic mafias and dark networks (in social dynamics, these terms mean “networks of persons exerting hidden influence”). Favored are the applicants who work for the mafia.”

Adrian Bejan International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics

We like Harry Lonsdale and his generosity to science. But Lonsdale’s Origin of Life Challenge dollars, $200,000 of them, went to a team of British academics, a red flag perhaps that American researchers increasingly prefer the stage to the lab, as well as evidence of the hand of “academic mafias” at work in the prize process.

However meritorious the experiments of John Sutherland, half of the winning team of John Sutherland-Matthew Powner, he and his RNA work were showcased three years ago in a series of stories by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times, then featured in a PBS-Nova program along with a couple of Lonsdale’s peer reviewers (one of whom received research dollars from Lonsdale as part of the Challenge package), followed by Sutherland receiving an award for origin of life research from the Royal Society, headed by Paul Nurse, formerly president of Rockefeller University and host of the May 2008 symposium:  “From RNA to Humans” featuring two of Lonsdale’s peer reviewers.

What is certain is that the 70 losers of the Lonsdale prize stood little chance of making it to the top of Lonsdale’s heap of origin of life proposals.

Harry Lonsdale says he has no plans to publish the non-winning proposals or to release the names of their authors. So I went to the gatekeeper of the Lonsdale prize, Arizona State University’s Origins Project (ASU-OP) director Lawrence Krauss, an astrophysicist, for further clarification as to how things were organized. Krauss is a public intellectual who currently amuses audiences by pulling a universe from out of nothing — at least in theory. But then Krauss has amassed a body of work impressive enough for at least two distinguished scientists, a visionary who clearly has something to say about nothing.

I spoke with Lawrence Krauss by phone in Australia where he’s been promoting his latest book, A Universe From Nothing, as well as the virtues of atheism. He was next moving on to the UK to do a film with Richard Dawkins then swinging through New York to appear on Colbert.

Aside from his role at ASU-OP, Lawrence Maxwell Krauss is Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and serves as associate director of Paul Davies’ Beyond Center at ASU.

Last year Krauss and ASU-OP agreed to partner with Harry Lonsdale to assist with the awarding of Lonsdale’s pledged $2M for origin of life research and to raise public awareness about origin of life. ASU-OP grew out of an origins symposium Krauss organized in 2009 attended by 3,000 people, including 80 scientists.

Lawrence Krauss is a native New Yorker and grew up in Toronto. His undergraduate degree is in Math and Physics from Canada’s Carleton University, and he was awarded an honorary D Sc in Public Understanding of Science from Carleton as well. His PhD is from MIT in Physics.

He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2008, Krauss served on Barack Obama’s science policy committee.

Among his numerous honors and awards are: National Science Board 2012 Public Service Award and Medal, Physics World Book of the Year 2011 for Quantum Man, Helen Sawyer Hogg Prize of the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada and the Astronomical Society of Canada.

He is the author of 300 studies, and these eight books: The Fifth Essence, Fear of Physics, The Physics of Star Trek, Beyond Star Trek, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, Hiding in the Mirror, Quintessence: The Mystery of Missing MassA Universe From Nothing.

Krauss apparently likes to mountain bike and fly fish but I don’t see how he finds time.

My interview with Lawrence Krauss follows.

Suzan Mazur: When did your partnering begin with Harry Lonsdale’s challenge to find the mechanism of life’s origin? Lonsdale did not mention you during my recent interview with him, and I didn’t see any reference to you and / or the Arizona State University Origins Project (ASU-OP) that you head in the original Lonsdale outreach for proposals.

Lawrence Krauss: The Lonsdale proposal happened before the partnering. I became aware of Harry or vice versa after the proposal was announced. I forget who made the first phone call to discuss the fact that we had established a vibrant program the Lonsdale prize would mesh perfectly with, but either way it became clear to both of us that it was a natural fit. 

Suzan Mazur: When did the partnering begin?

Lawrence Krauss: It was probably a year ago. 

Suzan Mazur: What does the partnership entail?

Lawrence Krauss: The partnership began with Harry getting involved on the advisory board of ASU-OP so he could learn more about the ongoing program. He came to ASU three or four times in the last year, meeting with me and the president of the university and other individuals to discuss ways in which we could facilitate the giving of the prize and administration of the money afterwards. We agreed to assist with announcement of the prize and to encourage others to support origins of life research. So the partnering entails using resources of ASU-OP and the university to raise public awareness about origins of life research and generate interest in the philanthropic community as well, to match and add to the support that Harry’s giving.

Suzan Mazur: Were you involved in selection of the peer review panel?

Lawrence Krauss: No. We consulted him to let him know how good the group was, but Harry did that all himself. 

Suzan Mazur: Now that the Lonsdale prize has been awarded, can you say who the peer review panel members were, aside from Dave Deamer, Chris McKay and Jack Szostak, and whether the same referees will be advising regarding future origin of life Lonsdale prizes? Lonsdale said he plans to award an additional $1.65M. 

Lawrence Krauss: The peer review panel is a question for Harry to answer. The plan is for the money to go out over a six to seven-year period. It’s contingent on work being done and progress. The exact framework has not been finalized. The intent is to award $200K to $300K a year for a total of $2M. From Harry’s perspective, it’s important to maintain some flexibility. 

Suzan Mazur: Were you involved with selection of the top three proposals? 

Lawrence Krauss: I was aware of some of them but stayed away from the selection panel itself. I was very happy to see the prize going to John Sutherland, a member of the prizewinning team who was involved in ASU-OP’s Origin of Life workshop and symposium a year ago. 

Suzan Mazur: The exact role you’re playing in allocating Lonsdale research funds is what? 

Lawrence Krauss: For the moment we’ll play an advisory role. We’ll see to what extent we can further support Lonsdale prizewinning researchers through events at ASU-OP. John Sutherland will be visiting ASU regularly and we’ll be discussing this with him.

Suzan Mazur: Are you and/or ASU-OP being funded by Harry Lonsdale?

Lawrence Krauss: Not at this point directly, although Harry has pledged to make a small gift. 

Suzan Mazur: Are you still Associate Director of the Beyond Institute at ASU headed by Paul Davies? 

Lawrence Krauss: Yes. 

Suzan Mazur: Is ASU-OP carrying out experiments re origin of life or is it an advisory body and conference center? 

Lawrence Krauss: ASU-OP tries to enhance ongoing research programs at the university and internationally by bringing scientists to the school and initiating collaborations. ASU-OP is three years old and growing. We just hired our first
Origins Professor. We don’t have our own laboratory facilities, per se, and I don’t envisage ASU-OP having laboratories. With additional funding, ASU-OP will increase support to scientists who do have labs at the university and to researchers elsewhere. 

Suzan Mazur: Who is your Origins Professor? 

Lawrence Krauss: Rob Boyd, an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist from UCLA. 

Suzan Mazur: Freeman Dyson said in an appearance on Charlie Rose that we are all equally ignorant when it comes to the question of origin of life.  What is your theory of origin of life and how does it fit into your concept of a “Universe from nothing”? 

Lawrence Krauss: Well that’s a big question. Yes, we are all equally ignorant at this point about the exact origin of life. It’s an incredibly exciting question, though, and why ASU-OP took an interest in assisting with the Lonsdale prize.

I learned a lot at the symposium ASU-OP had a year ago on origin of life. One of our strengths is bringing people together who don’t normally talk to one another. We invited geochemists, geologists, biologists and chemists to the conference.

The interaction of these scientists was fascinating to see regarding issues of importance and standards of proof, like the early climate conditions on Earth and how they might be relevant to the building up of organic molecules — which is relevant to the work that John Sutherland does.

After that symposium I became convinced we’d come much closer to understanding how chemistry turned into biology.

There’s a great intellectual mesh between origin of life and ideas about the origin of the Universe. We don’t have a complete theory for either one but in both cases we have a plausible set of mechanisms by which we can see a way forward.

With the origin of life, we are actually on the cusp of nailing down that plausible set of mechanisms. It’s possible in the next decade or two — I doubt it will take another century — we will understand specifically how biology arose from nonbiology. I expect we’ll answer the question of life before that of origin of the Universe. But in both cases it’s a matter of taking what was, before science, considered a miracle and plausibly showing how it arose. 

Suzan Mazur: You’ve said, “God is just an invention of lazy minds.” But couldn’t the same be said for natural selection? For example, Richard Lewontin noted in the New York Review of Books that Darwin intended natural selection as a metaphor, not for generations of scientists to take literally.

Lawrence Krauss: Metaphor or not, natural selection happens. 

Suzan Mazur: Lewontin acknowledges natural selection happens. But it becomes “not so natural selection” when it’s controlled. 

Lawrence Krauss: It’s semantics. The distinction seems to be a red herring. 

Suzan Mazur: Freeman Dyson, during that same Charlie Rose broadcast said the following: 

“I like Richard Dawkins as a human being, but I think he’s done a lot of harm by telling young people that you have to be an atheist in order to be a scientist. That’s a stupid thing to say because it pushes away a lot of young people from science who don’t want to give up religion. . . . I think religion is not just about belief. It’s about a way of life. It’s a community. It’s a big literature. It’s music and architecture. It’s a big part of human life which is really not so much dependent on belief. . . . Yes, [I am a religious man by that definition] but I certainly don’t believe any particular theology.” 

Would you comment on Dyson’s statement? 

Lawrence Krauss: Absolutely. First of all, I think he misquotes Richard Dawkins. I have said you don’t have to be an atheist to accept science, and the evidence of that is that there are some scientists who are not atheists.

The point that Richard Dawkins would make is — and Freeman is a friend, so I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I know he must agree — that science is incompatible with the doctrines of the world’s major religions. 

Suzan Mazur: How do you view the effectiveness of your proselytizing with Dawkins et al.? 

Lawrence Krauss: I don’t proselytize. I’ve often disagreed with Richard. One of the biggest impacts I’ve had is with college audiences and Fox News audiences by saying you don’t have to be an atheist to believe in evolution. As Steven Weinberg commented, science does not make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible to not believe in God. Once you have science, you realize that God becomes unnecessary.

That second part of Freeman’s statement is pap. It’s nonsense that religion is art and architecture and everything else. It’s a part of human culture but the contributions have been far more negative than positive. We could have had art and literature and music without this fairy tale that gets in the way of progress.

Science cannot disprove the idea that there’s some purpose to the Universe but science is incompatible with the strict doctrine of the world’s religons. When you ask people do they believe that a wafer turns into the body of a first century Jew when it’s held by a priest, they say absolutely not. 

Suzan Mazur: Do you think your vision of a Universe from nothing can substitute for what nurtures the religious culture that Dyson describes? 

Lawrence Krauss: Well I certainly hope so. I hope that understanding the way the world REALLY works, instead of the way we’d like the world to work, can, if appropriately described, motivate people, inspire them, and help produce the kind of community and society and caring world that actually makes it better than it is when religion plays that role.

For that to happen we have to discuss and understand those aspects of the human psychological condition that religion currently supports. That’s the sense of community, and for some people inspiration, which can be richer in a world that accepts the reality of nature and the idea that there may be no purpose to the Universe. And that the purpose of our lives is the purpose we make.

I don’t think science takes away from a sense of awe, wonder, love and goodness. But as long as we deny reality, we will delay humanity’s move forward and away from its current myopic rivalries, hatreds and religious animosities. 

Suzan Mazur: Would you comment on why you think the proposal of British chemists, John Sutherland and Matthew Powner, won the Lonsdale prize? Sutherland-Powner will attempt to generate RNA from “feedstock molecules under the presumed environmental conditions of pre-biotic Earth.” 

Lawrence Krauss: The current best idea is that preceding the DNA world was an RNA world, and that an RNA world could contain much of the metabolism and processors and information storage that eventually the DNA world, which was much more complicated, could house.

The question is, can RNA result naturally? That’s been a big stumbling block. The organic chemistry work of John Sutherland is perhaps THE most exciting work in the world, in my opinion, attempting to discover how organic chemistry in the absence of biology can allow the synthesis of molecules that can perform ultimately what RNA does.

For me, it was a revelation to see how far Sutherland had come in terms of trying to understand organic pathways and tell us what precursor molecules might be available either on the Earth or on materials that bombarded the Earth. 

Suzan Mazur: The Origin of Life Challenge focus so far has been on the chemical, life described in the Lonsdale outreach as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.” However, Darwinian and neo-Darwinian theory are waning in influence in serious science circles.

Freeman Dyson gave what he called his “reasonable point of view” about origin of life on that same Charlie Rose Show, saying, “You had life evolving without genes for a long time. . . .” Microbiologist James Shapiro  has described genes as “not a definite entity,” they’re “hypothetical in nature,” saying further that “there are no units” just “systems all the way down.” Cell biologist Stuart Newman http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/newman.html has written that before there were genetic programs there were physical forces like adhesion, polarity, etc.

Duke University Mechanical Engineer Adrian Bejan, thinks origin of life is 100% physics and that both animate and inanimate systems are live systems. Bejan says the natural phenomenon is actually distribution not elimination and that “for a finite system to persist in time (to live) it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.” 

My question is, in giving advise and direction to the OOL Challenge were you aware that whole swaths of the scientific community now have Darwinian science in the margins? 

Lawrence Krauss: Well I don’t think they have Darwinian science in the margins. 

Suzan Mazur: They actually do. 

Lawrence Krauss: Hold on. Freeman Dyson is a friend of mine. He was just on our ASU-OP event. We nearly spent a week together and had great discussions about this. Freeman, is, of course, a contrarian and often goes against conventional wisdom. It’s a way to provoke people’s thinking. Freeman considers metabolism much more important than replication in a sense in the origin of life. And that’s an interesting idea. 

Suzan Mazur: Bejan and others are taking a physical approach to the origin of life. It’s an organized flow of matter and energy. Both animate and inanimate systems are live systems. 

Lawrence Krauss: Whether you call it life or not, it’s just the laws of physics and chemistry. There’s nothing beyonds the laws of physics and chemistry that allow for the origin of life. We are just a bunch of chemicals subject to forces and laws. It’s electromagnetism and quantum mechanics and how those laws of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics produce chemistry. And how chemistry produces biology. And then once biology is produced, how do those laws impact on how biological molecules evolve. It’s a continuum.

To say it’s physics is ok, because it is all physics. Ultimately the laws of chemistry are just an application of physics. And so at some fundamental level physics determines the evolution of organic molecules but we call it chemistry because of the way physics manifests itself in the nature of atoms and atomic levels. Biology is an application of chemistry with a certain set of molecules that have certain interesting properties including ultimately to self-organize and produce consciousness and intelligence and affect the planet. 

Suzan Mazur: Some say we don’t have the tools we need in place to seriously investigate origin of life. What are your thoughts? 

Lawrence Krauss: You do what you can do. You make progress and you don’t give up. We don’t say, “The Universe is big, we’ll never understand it, let’s give up”. The point is John Sutherland is demonstrating we have tools to learn more about organic synthesis. You never know until you solve the problem that you have the tools to solve the problem. What you do in science is just try and make incremental improvements and increase your knowledge and get to the goal. You don’t know what you need to know until you make that attempt. That statement that we don’t have the tools is ludicrous — we don’t know what the tools are.  

Suzan Mazur: Do you intend to bring up the Origin of Life Challenge in your upcoming appearance on Colbert and will Harry Lonsdale be joining you? 

Lawrence Krauss: Harry won’t be and I have no idea what we’ll we discussing in the Colbet Report. I imagine Colbert will decide. I suspect it will be focused more on the origin of the Universe and cosmology and the nature of nothing but I’m willing to go wherever he wants to go. 

Suzan Mazur: Do you think origin of life is a subject that should be discussed more on television at this point? 

Lawrence Krauss: Of course — the origin of life and the origin of the Universe are the two most exciting questions in nature. 

Suzan Mazur: Do you lament the lack of forums on public television to discuss this? 

Lawrence Krauss: Yes. The problem is TV producers who think people are not interested in science and that you have to dumb down content in order to get people to watch. The reality is the public is fascinated by these open questions.

Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16An Expose’ of the Evolution Industry. Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programsShe can be reached at: sznmzr@aol.com

 

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Suzan Mazur is the author of  The Altenberg 16: An Expose’ of the Evolution Industry and of a forthcoming book on Origin of Life.  Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur,Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC.  She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs.  For a few years along the way she was a runway fashion model, visiting Iran in 1976 as part of a US bicentennial goodwill tour of the Middle East (former CIA Director Richard Helms was then ambassador to Iran and attended the Tehren fashion gala). 




 
  

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