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On Origin of Life, Synthetic Chemist James Tour Delivers Chastisement to Jeremy England

David Klinghoffer

Jeremy England

As a postscript to Brian Miller’s reply to MIT physicist Jeremy England, see this from the famed synthetic organic chemist James Tour, writing for the online journal Inference. In “An Open Letter to My Colleagues,” Tour sets out this way:

Life should not exist. This much we know from chemistry. In contrast to the ubiquity of life on earth, the lifelessness of other planets makes far better chemical sense. Synthetic chemists know what it takes to build just one molecular compound. The compound must be designed, the stereochemistry controlled. Yield optimization, purification, and characterization are needed. An elaborate supply is required to control synthesis from start to finish. None of this is easy. Few researchers from other disciplines understand how molecules are synthesized.

His colleagues are fooling themselves if they imagine otherwise. He gets around to England, not naming him except in a footnote, at the end:

If one understands the second law of thermodynamics, according to some physicists,15 “You [can] start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”16

The quote, remarkably, is from Jeremy England in an interview with Natalie Wolchover for Quanta. Tour also cites England’s article “Statistical Physics of Self-Replication,” in the Journal of Chemical Physics, and one of the most absurdly titled God-bashing articles we’ve come across, “God is on the Ropes: The Brilliant New Science That Has Creationists and the Christian Right Terrified,” by Paul Rosenberg writing for Salon. Rosenberg quotes England from the same Quanta article, “[U]nder certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.” Oh, really, does it?

Tour goes on, referring to the notion that random atoms will become a plant if given plenty of light and plenty of time:

The interactions of light with small molecules is well understood. The experiment has been performed. The outcome is known. Regardless of the wavelength of the light, no plant ever forms.

We synthetic chemists should state the obvious. The appearance of life on earth is a mystery. We are nowhere near solving this problem. The proposals offered thus far to explain life’s origin make no scientific sense.

Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth.17

It’s somehow more satisfying that England isn’t identified in the body of the article, but only in a footnote. That is a memorable instance of a senior scientist quietly taking a junior colleague out behind the woodshed. For more on the general subject, see Tour’s slashing 2016 lecture, “The Origin of Life: An Inside Story.”

Image: James Tour, via University of Waterloo/YouTube.

H/t: Granville Sewell.