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

The God of Small Things

Nanostar, scienceimage.csiro.au, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Nanostar, scienceimage.csiro.au, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Physicists working at the atomic or molecular scale are revolutionising industry with their ultra-small chips and mini-machines, but in a sense nanotechnology is nothing new. Nature got there first, and we are only just beginning to catch up Continue reading

Predictable Universe?

Two planets. Gilderm, http://www.sxc.hu/
Two planets. © Gilderm, http://www.sxc.hu/

Over the last few years, the universe has started to look increasingly friendly to life, and scientists who previously said they didn’t expect to find living things on other planets are beginning to change their tune. NASA’s Kepler telescope may be largely non-functional, but the search for other organisms in the Universe is just beginning.

Last month at the Faraday Institute, astrobiologist Stephen Freeland gave a lecture entitled, ‘Will alien life share our genetic code?’ – a topic which would have been on the border of science fiction a couple of decades ago, but is now a serious question. Continue reading

New Approaches to the Origin of Life

Mike Melrose, flickrcc.bluemountains.net
Mike Melrose, flickrcc.bluemountains.net

Studying the origin of life is an intractable problem, a little like navigating the misty trackless waste that is central Dartmoor. For an event that happened so long ago, we are unlikely to find a ‘smoking gun’. If life originated on another planet and then somehow seeded life on Earth – a possibility that is being taken seriously at the moment – we have even less hope of finding a solution.

This was Christopher Southgate’s impression of the field of origins research until a few years ago. Chris is a theologian and former biochemist based at Exeter University, and in his Faraday seminar on New Approaches to the Origin of life: Scientific and Theological last week, he explained why he is now a little a more hopeful. He also described a very unique research programme that combines both science and theology.

Life is generally easier to describe than define. Any description that tries to be all-inclusive will inevitably leave something out. Southgate’s own definition includes three properties: Continue reading

Life in a Bountiful Universe

Omega Centauri star cluster cropped
Omega centauri star cluster, Hubblesite.org, NASA

The astronomer Dr Jennifer Wiseman visited Cambridge recently to speak about her work on ‘exoplanet’ discovery. Exoplanets are planets in solar systems other than our own, and until 1989 they were the stuff of science fiction. Now we know there definitely are other planets in the universe, some of which may be like Earth. The discovery of life on other planets – perhaps single celled organisms – in the next few decades is a real possibility.

Our universe is active and fruitful. We live in an abundant universe, and can celebrate that with new knowledge. The changes made to the Hubble telescope in 2009 have brought us beautiful new pictures that show the universe in greater depth than ever before. This one of the Omega Centauri star cluster shows a startling variety of stars.

The universe is beautiful, and the range of telescopes that astronomers use are like a symphony orchestra, with many different instruments contributing to our knowledge of the universe. Continue reading

Wonderful Code

© BSK, freeimages.com

Incredibly, every living thing – you, your cat, the plant on your desk, and the bacteria in your toilet – share exactly the same genetic code. It has been suggested that the particular code we all use was arrived at by chance, and that we have a shared genetics because we have a shared ancestor.  Others think while it’s true that we have a common ancestor, our molecular biology is highly optimised.

The genetic code is fascinating because it links two completely unrelated biological systems. It’s rather like sending a message in Morse code and receiving it with a machine that uses binary numbers. The two codes are completely unrelated, but it’s possible to translate between them. It sounds odd, but this juxtaposition of completely different systems works incredibly well in living organisms. Continue reading

Exploring the universe

The Kepler 11 system compared to our own (Image courtesy of NASA)

Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defense.

But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, with the new psychology. So, I cannot help expecting, it will be with the discovery of ‘life on other planets’ if that discovery is ever made.

from the essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’ by CS Lewis, 1958

Continue reading