Photos by Jonathan Nelson
“My ego knows no bounds,” said Lee Cronin as he spoke to a full room at the City University of New York’s Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC). “I want to be a creationist; I want to make a new lifeform.”
It’s no wonder that Rein Ulijn, director of the ASRC’s Nanoscience Initiative, was glad to see representation from the New York City Skeptics at the October 22 lecture, the first joint event between the two groups. “There’s certainly room for skepticism when Lee Cronin has the mic,” Ulijn said. “Heckling is encouraged, I would say.”
Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, UK, had questions as powerful as his statements. “What is chemistry’s big question?” Cronin asked, noting that’s something easy to identify in other sciences. Cosmology wonders how the universe began; physics looks for a unified model.
“More money is spent on the origin of the universe and the origin of mass than the origin of life,” Cronin said. We’ve come to figure those things out at least a little bit, but on the subject of how we ourselves came to be, Cronin said, “We have no idea.”
Cronin thinks that question is best answered with another question. “Can we engineer or discover non-biological systems capable of evolution?” he asked. “I think that is the question.” If we could create life in a lab, we’d have a better understanding of how it might have happened in the wild, 3.5 billion years ago.
To do that, we have to be able to recognize it when we see it. “What is life?” Cronin asked. He supplied a standard meaning of “a self-sustaining non-trivial trajectory in state space.” While that’s technically accurate, Cronin prefers a simpler definition. “Let me give you the one I like the most – stuff that moves with intent,” he said.
“Wouldn’t it be intriguing,” Cronin continued, “if we made something that when we fed it a fuel, moved with intent? I would give myself that Nobel Prize every October, even if you didn’t.”
If evolution is a fundamental property of the universe, as Cronin believes – basically, “whatever sticks, wins” – then we should be able to create some simple intending movers pretty easily. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as biology, with a giant genetic code that stores loads of information and takes millions of years to develop. Cronin thinks it can be done with just four simple chemicals.
And he might be on the way there. Using a few pieces of glassware and some parts from a 3D printer, Cronin has constructed what he calls a “recursive evolutionary engine,” a device that selects a behavior in a chemical droplet and tries to accentuate it over successive generations. Starting with a randomly made recipe, Cronin and the engine were able to produce different behaviors just by varying the ratio of the four chemicals. Each a result of increasingly refined recipes, three behaviors in particular – motion, vibration and replication – progressed the most after being run through the machine over and over.
“These are the first evolutionary behaviors done in a chemical system with no DNA,” Cronin said. Not everyone agrees. “When I sent this paper to Nature, they flushed it down the toilet,” Cronin said. “I cried a lot.”
He’ll keep at it, though, and even if he’s never recognized for creating life, Cronin might have a hand in discovering it elsewhere in the solar system. He’s currently working with NASA on a “universal biology detector” that quantifiably measures a molecule’s complexity, a device that may one day be sent to the likely ocean-covered Jovian moon of Europa. If the detector finds something that crosses a certain complexity threshold, we’ll have proven there’s life there, even if we don’t immediately find the life itself. Assuming Nature wouldn’t flush that paper, too.
Cronin considers a wine glass a “non-trivial trajectory,” even if it’s not self-sustaining. Translation: iIf you find a wine glass, you’ve found life, because there’s nothing else that could have produced it.