Guest Post: God, Bubbles and the Origin of Life

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Bubble by zacktionman. Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

There is something about the sight of a bubble hanging effortlessly in the air that excites a childlike wonder in us, whatever our age. Perhaps it’s their delicate beauty, almost transparent, glimmering with a rainbow of colours? Perhaps it’s the temptation to pop them? For me, the most amazing thing about bubbles is that they make themselves.

The skin of a bubble is made of a thin layer of water sandwiched between two layers of soap molecules. If each soap molecule were the size of a beach ball, then they would form a bubble the size of the earth. This gives you an idea of just what a feat of engineering a bubble really is! It would be quite impossible to create a structure on this scale if we had to assemble the parts one by one.

The chemistry of soap molecules means that they are able to organise themselves. They do this because they have one end that loves to be in water (hydrophilic), and one end that hates being in water (hydrophobic). The hydrophobic end is also much happier than water molecules at being exposed to air. When soap and water are mixed together, the molecules all move around randomly. Gradually, the water molecules stick together squeezing out the soap molecules, which orientate themselves with their hydrophobic tails exposed to the air, forming the sandwich structure.

As a chemist, I make use of similar interactions to those that give rise to bubbles. The aim is to design molecules which will stack together in different ways to form well-defined architectures such as chains, sheets and 3D networks. The beauty of this approach is that because the structures formed are dynamic rather than rigid, they can be designed to reform, rearrange or dissolve in response to changes in their environment. This allows us to create surfaces which heal themselves if scratched, sensors that report on pollution, and medicines that are delivered in a more targeted way. Nature too has evolved to exploit these forces in order to form cell membranes, fold proteins, mediate signalling processes and ultimately organise billions of billions of molecules into creatures as complex as you and me.

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Hubble’s colourful view of the Universe. By Hubble ESA. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

It strikes me that, just as you wouldn’t want to organise a billion trillion individual soap molecules to make a bubble, if you wanted to design a universe with a billion trillion stars putting them in place one by one might not be the way to go. A universe which appeared with everything in place would surely be a uniform and inflexible place, requiring constant divine interference to keep everything on track. Allowing the universe to assemble through an unfathomable number of individual components coming together gradually according to simple rules has the advantage of creating a far more robust universe, free to evolve through a myriad of different possibilities, increasing in diversity and complexity as it goes. To me, this is an incredibly elegant approach to creating a universe of such scale and beauty as the one we see around us.

Although many of the processes by which the stars find their place in the heavens appear random, the underlying processes are governed by well-defined laws. As a chemist I have to discover those rules and try to exploit them to bring the building blocks I make together in the correct way to create the structures I want. Often the molecules I design fail to function in the way I expected because there is some additional subtle effect I had not anticipated. The “great” ideas I have on paper turn out not to work in reality, which is often far more complex and intricate than I expect. Every blind alley I rule out reminds me that as scientists we can only describe the universe as we find it. We can’t make new laws to suit our purposes, but only harness the ones that are already there. It’s probably a wise God who ignores my pleas for things to be otherwise.

Despite its challenges, this opportunity to understand something of the ‘how’ of creation is an enormous privilege. The great missing link in the story of our origins – how inanimate matter transformed into the most primitive life – falls squarely in the realms of chemistry. The simple driving force (energy minimisation) which guides the formation of something like a bubble is insufficient to create and sustain structures as complex as life. Life uses energy and information to enable it to grow, reproduce and evolve. Some progress has been made in understanding how the necessary building blocks might come into place through natural processes, and a variety of theories have been put forward for the conditions under which life might have got going. However, the lack of chemical evidence from the early earth means we may never be able to fully explain how life began. Still, from everything we do understand about how the universe has been able to assemble itself, I would be very surprised if God had failed to build life into his original design.

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The Bubble Nebula by Hubble ESA. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

For me then, the beauty of bubbles is a reminder that God knew what he was doing when he decided to create a universe that could assemble itself. As Charles Kingsley, a friend of Darwin writing in response to publication of The Origin of Species, puts it “we knew of old that God was so wise that he could make all things, but behold he is even wiser, that he can make all things make themselves”.

 

foster-jonathancrophighresDr Jonathan Foster holds a Ramsay Fellowship and a Sheffield Vice Chancellors Fellowship in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. He completed his undergraduate and PhD studies at the University of Durham before moving to the University of Cambridge where he worked as a post-doctoral researcher in the Chemistry and Materials Science departments. In the lab, Jonathan spends his time playing with molecular lego, designing simple building blocks that stack together to form complex structures and materials with useful properties. He is a member of All Saints Church Ecclesall and enjoys going into schools to give talks on the ‘origin of life’, ‘amazing bubbles’ and ‘chemistry cluedo’.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: God, Bubbles and the Origin of Life

  1. unkleE February 9, 2017 / 11:28 am

    Thanks for this post. For some reason it really caught my fancy. I had no idea about the structure of bubbles, and I’d be interested to hear more about the molecule you design – what you are aiming to achieve with them.

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  2. jonafoster February 10, 2017 / 11:34 am

    Thanks Unklee, glad you liked the post. I am currently developing some new materials which are so thin we describe them as 2D materials. The most famous example of a 2D material is graphene which consists of a single layer of carbon atoms and won the Nobel prize for physics in 2010 because it has some amazing properties (e.g. stronger than steel, more conductive than copper). Instead of using carbon atoms, I make my materials by bolting together molecules with metal ions. We are trying to use these materials to act as sensors for detecting disease and catalysts for making cheaper, more environmentally friendly products.

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  3. Graeme February 11, 2017 / 6:44 am

    Really liked this post, and the idea that Christians (should) have no fear of scientific progress in understanding the origins of life. Incomplete scientific understanding is not a victory for God or faith.

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  4. Michael Stringer February 17, 2017 / 8:31 am

    I am sorry but this post is just bad. Charles Kingsley opinions were completely at odds with Darwin’s understanding of evolution. Darwin was pleased to have a friend in the clergy who could help gently sell the metaphysical naturalism that Darwinism required. When Darwin published his 1859 work he selected various people who he knew would give his work a favourable reception. Kingsley in particular was eager to assert himself as a man of science as his reply to Darwin shows;

    Dear Sir,– I have to thank you for the unexpected honour of your book. That the Naturalist whom, of all naturalists living, I most wish to know and learn from, should have sent a scientist like me his book, encourages me at least to observe more carefully, and think more slowly.

    I am so poorly (in brain), that I fear I cannot read your book just now as I ought. All I have seen of it awes me; both with the heap of facts and the prestige of your name, and also with the clear intuition, that if you be right, I must give up much that I have believed and written.
    In that I care little. Let God be true, and every man a liar! Let us know what is . . . .
    From two common superstitions, at least, I shall be free while judging of your books:
    1) I have long since, from watching the crossing of domesticated animals and plants, learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species.
    2) I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.
    Be it as it may, I shall prize your book, both for itself, and as a proof that you are aware of the existence of such a person as
    Your faithful servant,
    C. Kingsley

    Kingsley had not even read the book carefully but still praised it. Notice how Kingsley describes himself as ‘a scientist’ he wants to please. Darwin was over joyed with this letter as he wanted the religious establishment on his side and this letter was printed in the 1860 second edition as being from a noted cleric. Darwin was keen to kept in check the anti-theological implication of his work in the early days. But if you read the letter Kingsley did not understand Darwin’s work as his letter talks of special creation from which all forms arose. Janet Brown, Darwin’s leading biographer notes that, “nothing could have been further from Darwin’s intention. Natural selection was a phenomenon that could never be governed, or set in motion by a Creator. Kingsley had misunderstood that the main point of Darwin’s book was to remove the Creator from nature”. Kingsley did not understand Darwin’s work so why quote from someone who was a creationist?

    Some people also claim that Asa Gray was a Darwinian evolutionist. But Darwinian mutations are random precisely in that “they do not occur according to the needs of their possessors”; see Michael Ruse, “How Not to Solve the Science–Religion Conflict,” The Philosophical Quarterly 62:248 (2012), 620–625, 623. If God were to cause mutations to ensure that humans evolve, it would be nonrandom and hence non-Darwinian. As Ruse points out, when Darwin’s friend and supporter Asa Gray first proposed a version of theistic evolution, Darwin argued that it was incompatible with his theory. God has nothing to do with it.

    As a undergraduate textbook makes clear;

    Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its by-products. Darwinian evolution was not only purposeless but also heartless–a process in which the rigors of nature ruthlessly eliminate the unfit. Suddenly, humanity was reduced to just one more species in a world that cared nothing for us. The great human mind was no more than a mass of evolving neurons. Worst of all, there was no divine plan to guide us.” (Biology: Discovering Life, by Joseph S. Levine & Kenneth R. Miller pg. 152).

    Yes this is the same Kenneth Miller touted as a ‘Theistic Evolutionist’ who has now dropped the label as it is no longer convenient.

    As time went on Darwin lost his coyness he became more bold “I have . . . often personified the word Nature; but I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws — and by laws only the ascertained sequence of events.” and “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.”This is the correct and only interpretation of evolution.
    Why do people in CIS and the religion and science field insist that any form of realist religion and evolution are compatible when clearly they are not? If CIS and the S&R thinkers are promoting anti realist theology (God is man made, the resurrection is just symbolic) just be honest and say so.

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    • jonafoster February 20, 2017 / 3:43 pm

      Hey Michael, thanks for your perspective and for the interesting quotes.

      I will have to leave it to historians to debate with you on the details of what Charles Kingsley believed. However, as far as I can see from the quote you supplied, he understands Darwin’s theory about how creatures can evolve from one species to another just fine and indeed believes that this “might be the loftier thought”… which supports the quote I used. Regardless, I think the quote eloquently illustrates the beauty and wisdom of God in choosing to ‘make all things make themselves’ which was my main purpose in using it.

      I certainly do not believe that God is man-made or that the resurrection is symbolic. As I’ve tried to make clear in my post: I believe that science is the way that God chooses to sustain and uphold the universe most of the time, that this is an elegant way of populating an enormous and diverse universe, and that it is a privilege to be able to understand something of how He does it.

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  5. unkleE February 20, 2017 / 9:33 pm

    Hi Michael, as a total layperson who reads this blog, I am interested in what you write. Particularly the comment “If God were to cause mutations to ensure that humans evolve, it would be nonrandom and hence non-Darwinian.”

    Is it proven that natural selection, mutation and evolution are random, or is that an assumption, a dogma? I suppose one could even ask the question whether anything can be truly random, or it only seems random to our limited knowledge?

    Like

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