Guest Post: Life as old as the Earth? The earliest evidence for living things

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Cross-section of a fossil stromatolite © James St John, flickr, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The history of life on Earth is almost as long as the history of Earth itself. The most precise scientific dating methods tell us that our planet formed 4567 million years ago, although there are no rock samples preserved from this ancient and chaotic time. The oldest known Earth materials are about 4300 million years old, and are found in the remote deserts of western Australia. The oldest probable evidence for life on Earth has been dated between 3700 and 3800 million years, in west Greenland, and is so sophisticated that the history of life on earth must extend much further back. These observations suggest that life is a fundamental property of our planet, a feature which makes the Earth very different from its immediate rocky neighbours. Continue reading

How Biofriendly is the Universe?

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Kepler-186f: artist’s concept. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

It’s obvious that our own planet is friendly to life, but what about the rest of the universe? Is the rest of space too cold and dark – or hot – to allow life to develop? Was the development of life on earth a hugely improbably event, or pretty much a forgone conclusion? The Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Christian de Duve spent the last few years of his career investigating this question, and came up with a surprising answer. In this post I’ll share five of the characteristics of life that he studied. Continue reading

Guest Post: Artistic Molecules

rainbow freeimages Pawel JagodzinskiThis week as I was demonstrating “Messy Church Does Science”, I extracted someone’s DNA using salt water, washing-up liquid and methylated spirits.  At the boundary between these substances, a white substance forms that can be drawn out into a thin glistening thread made up of millions of stands of DNA – the twisted double helix.  That form itself is a wonderful example of the artistry that arises from a chaotic mix of chemical elements.  Yet perhaps true artistry is seen in the emergence of life that DNA shapes in all its diversity and beauty across millions of years. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Atom and the Atonement: Why we need models in science and theology

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Atoms by Cezary Borysiuk. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

If you ask a 14 year old, an 18 year old and an undergraduate to describe an atom you will get different answers. Ask them to draw an atom, and the discrepancies become even more noticeable.  A 14 year old will have no issues producing an image like the one below. The undergraduate is likely to look at you quizzically. “Draw an atom? You must be joking!” Continue reading

Worshipping God with Science: Beauty from the Earth

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Grossmünster in Zürich By Roland zh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
 I’m always keeping my eye out for ways to bring science into a church context, and I recently found a new one in Switzerland. Two buildings in the centre of Zurich, the Grossmünster (great minster) and Fraumünster (women’s minster) are decorated with the most incredible stained glass, designed by the artists Marc Chagall, Augusto Giacometti and Sigmar Polke. I had already seen examples of scientific themes in stained glass, such as the windows by David Hunt in St Crispin’s, Braunstone, but some of Polke’s windows took this idea to a new level. Continue reading

Water and Life: The Unique Properties of H2O

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A New Voyage by Brooks Bailey – Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Water is a strange thing. The unique structure of its molecules allow it take on three different forms: a liquid that is easily absorbed into porous substances (i.e. it’s wet!), ice that floats, and a gas. In the book Water and Life: The Unique Properties of H2O, the biophysicist Felix Franks has contributed a chapter explaining some of these properties, and how they may have played a part in the origin of life.

The chemistry of life has adapted to water and become very dependent on it, so that even ‘heavy water’[i] is toxic in Continue reading