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The Origins of Life and the Universe

The Origins of Life and the Universe

Paul F. Lurquin
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Origins of Life and the Universe
    Book Description:

    The Origins of Life and the Universe is the culmination of a university science professor's search for understanding and is based on his experiences teaching the fundamental issues of physics, chemistry, and biology in the classroom. What is life? Where did it come from? How can understanding the origins of life on Earth help us understand the origins of the universe, and vice versa? These are questions that have occupied us all. This is a book, then, about the beginning of things -- of the universe, matter, stars, and planetary systems, and finally, of life itself -- topics of profound interest that are rarely considered together.

    After surveying prescientific accounts of the origins of life, the book examines the concepts of modern physics and cosmology, in particular the two pillars of modern physics, relativity and quantum theory, and how they can be applied to the Big Bang model of the creation of the universe. The author then considers molecular genetics and DNA, the famed building block of life. In addition to assessing various hypotheses concerning the appearance of the first bacterial cells and their evolution into more complex eukaryotic cells, this section explains how "protocells" may have started a kind of integrated metabolism and how horizontal gene transfer may have speeded up evolution. Finally, the book discusses the possibility that life did not originate on planet Earth but first appeared on other solar planets, or perhaps in other star systems. How would such a possibility affect our understanding of the meaning of life, or of its ultimate fate in the universe? The book ends as it begins, with profound questions and penetrating answers, a state-of-the-art guide to unlocking the scientific mysteries of life and matter.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50766-0
    Subjects: Astronomy, Biological Sciences, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    For us humans, the phenomenon of life exists for certain in only one spot in the universe: here on planet Earth. In spite of much speculation on the possible existence of life-forms on Mars and in other star systems, we still have no evidence that extraterrestrial life exists or has existed. We do not know for sure how life began on our planet, since no one was present when life first appeared, more than 3.5 billion years ago. How then, can we even hope to tackle the problem of the origins of life? How can we reconstruct the past? We...

  5. Chapter 1 Foundations of the Universe
    (pp. 13-41)

    These two great scientists, Weinberg the physicist, Nobel Prize 1979, and Monod the biologist, Nobel Prize 1965, seem to speak in concert: there is no imperative for the universe to exist, nor is there one for the existence of life, including that of humans. Weinberg goes on to say, “But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself,” and Monod, writing about the transcendence of ideas and knowledge over ignorance, announces, “[Man’s] destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness...

  6. Chapter 2 Building a Universe
    (pp. 42-61)

    Twentieth-century physics, with its precise description of matter, energy, and radiation, was merged with astronomical observations to provide an account of the birth of the universe consistent with the laws of nature. These efforts resulted in the Big Bang model for the creation of the cosmos. Since we do not (yet) know how to create a universe in the laboratory, some of the Big Bang theory relies on mathematical and computer models. However, the sciences of astrophysics and high-energy particle physics provide much empirical evidence to support the theory in its entirety. In this chapter we will see how the...

  7. Chapter 3 Life as It Is Today
    (pp. 62-91)

    It is often said that biology is reducible to chemistry and that chemistry is reducible to physics. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics have certainly shaped chemistry into the precise and versatile science we know today. However, saying that biology is merely complicated chemistry is going too far. If this were true, we could predict all the properties of an organism simply by computing all the quantum states, under a variety of conditions, of all the atoms composing the organism. This is clearly not (yet) possible. We cannot do it because of the sheer complexity of living systems. Thus a totally reductionistic...

  8. Chapter 4 Prebiotic Earth: First Organic Compounds and First Informational Molecules
    (pp. 92-116)

    As we saw in chapter 2, Earth’s atmosphere 4 billion years ago was very different from the one we know today. There was no oxygen, but other gases were present. In one scenario, these were methane (CH₄), water vapor (H₂O), nitrogen (N₂), ammonia (NH₃), hydrogen sulfide (H₂S), and carbon dioxide (CO₂). Primeval hydrogen (H₂) and helium (He) were disappearing fast because Earth’s gravity was not strong enough to keep them in the atmosphere. Traces of helium would always be present, however, thanks to the radioactive decay of elements, such as uranium, thorium, and radium, in Earth’s interior. There were also...

  9. Chapter 5 Life on Its Way
    (pp. 117-153)

    Science sometimes works in strange ways. One might think that basic principles, such as the origin of the building blocks of life, should be firmly established before starting a discussion of the next step. But this is not necessary if one simply assumes that these building blocks did appear somehow or other. Otherwise, we would not be here to think about the origins of life. I will assume in this chapter that the chemistry of the prebiotic broth synthesized RNA molecules capable of replication. Whether protoenzymes made in an iron-thioester world were involved in the replication mechanism is not that...

  10. Chapter 6 Has Life Originated Elsewhere and Will It End?
    (pp. 154-174)

    The wave of optimism that followed the Miller experiment in 1953 has been replaced today by more subdued attitudes. Solving the mysteries of the emergence of life on Earth is now seen as a very difficult proposition. In the face of this, some have proposed that life may have originated elsewhere in the solar system, or even somewhere else in our galaxy. Proponents of this view include the famous biophysicist Francis Crick of DNA fame (his statement on that question seems to have been tongue-in-cheek) and the equally famous cosmologist Fred Hoyle (not so tongue-in-cheek). But others, nonscientists I must...

  11. Appendix 1 A Graphic Representation of Special Relativity
    (pp. 175-176)
  12. Appendix 2 More on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
    (pp. 177-178)
  13. Appendix 3 How Do We Know the Age of the Universe?
    (pp. 179-180)
  14. Appendix 4 Eric Chaisson’s View of Cosmic Evolution
    (pp. 181-182)
  15. Appendix 5 Do the Universe and Life Have a Purpose and a Designer?
    (pp. 183-186)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 187-194)
  17. Glossary
    (pp. 195-198)
  18. Notable Scientists
    (pp. 199-200)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-204)
  20. Index
    (pp. 205-218)