Skip to content

(Star) Dust In The Eyes

shellgameIf, as they say, some dust thrown in my eyes

Will keep my talk from getting overwise,

I’m not the one for putting off the proof.

Let it be overwhelming, off a roof

And round a corner, blizzard snow for dust,

And blind me to a standstill if it must. –Robert Frost

While reading the news today (8/19) I stumbled on a story that caused me to think a little bit. I hope it does the same for you. There will be a little technical discussion in this article. Don’t let that scare you away. I’ll be gentle for the non-scientists out there and hopefully instructive and explanatory. If not, leave a question in the commentary box. I’ll try to answer it.

The story I read was based on a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Stardust comet dust sample return project news item, available here. The news release starts in a breathless tone-

NASA scientists have discovered glycine, a fundamental building block of life, in samples of comet Wild 2 returned by NASA’s Stardust spacecraft.

“Glycine is an amino acid used by living organisms to make proteins, and this is the first time an amino acid has been found in a comet,” said Dr. Jamie Elsila of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Our discovery supports the theory that some of life’s ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite and comet impacts.”

That’s certainly interesting scientific news. Now there’s both some truth and some incredibly wild-eyed speculation and what scientists call “extrapolation beyond the bounds of the data set” in this short quote from the article (interpolation is the practice of making measurements of standard samples, then analyzing test samples based on data from those standards; extrapolation is making the same measurements for data that are outside the upper and lower boundaries of the standard samples. A little bit of extrapolation is usually OK. More than a few per cent beyond the upper or lower bounds is not OK, usually). Can you separate the truth from the speculation?

The quote is truthful, at least partially, in that glycine is a chemical compound that is one of the so-called “building blocks of life,” the amino acids. What is wrong with the report? It raises the eyebrows of critical thinkers for several reasons.

First, it’s not all that shocking that a form of glycine would be found in a comet’s tail. Comets contain all sorts of organic compounds including organic acids, of which glycine is one. The term “organic” means that the compounds are made up of carbon and hydrogen and sometimes oxygen and nitrogen, all of which are in glycine. Glycine is THE simplest amino acid. An amino acid cannot contain fewer constituents than glycine. Amino acids have a specific chemical structure. They consist of a central carbon atom, and by the laws of chemistry carbon must have 4 attachments. In an amino acid carbon is  attached to a carboxyl group, the acid part (-COOH), an amine, the amino part (-NH2) a hydrogen (-H), and what is called a side chain that can consist of several single or chained attachments like hydrogen (as in glycine) to very complex multi-carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur chains. Proline is an exception to this rule because the side chain reacts with the amine group to form a “ring” (a bond where  the atoms are bonded together in a more or less round structure). But that’s just to let you know there are a few weird and complex exceptions. So glycine, as opposed to other amino acids, is a really, really simple molecule, in fact, it is one of the simplest organic acids.

Second, there is no indication of what conformation or three-dimensional form the glycine was found in. This is of the utmost importance in considering the claims of NASA to have found some of “life’s ingredients” in the comet’s tail. All proteins in life on earth are built from chains consisting of  22 amino acids, 8 of these are called “essential amino acids” in humans because we cannot make them in our own bodies. In every case the amino acids in all life forms on planet earth are in the “L” 3-dimensional configuration.  It follows that one of the requirements for life, at least from our observations on this planet, is that amino acids be in the “L” configuration. And in fact, that is true because “D” form proteins made of the same amino acids as the “L” form are vastly different in size and shape as are proteins that contain a mix of “R” and “L” forms. Size and shape effect function of a protein. A change in a proteins function equals malformation and death. But there is no indication which form or if there was a mix of forms found in the comet residue.

Glycine formed by so-called “natural forces” tends to exist in equal amounts of the “D” and “L” forms. This is what we would expect to see in, for instance, glycine from a comet’s tail residue. From a physical chemistry standpoint, this creates a problem for evolutionist arguments for the spontaneous generation of life. The “spontaneous life generation” assumption can be seen in this  overwrought quote from the article-

“The discovery of glycine in a comet supports the idea that the fundamental building blocks of life are prevalent in space, and strengthens the argument that life in the universe may be common rather than rare,” said Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute which co-funded the research.

One of the major arguments against life emerging from a pre-biotic soup of chemicals is the fact stated above- that all proteins from all life on the planet are built from “L” amino acids. If there were a mix of “L” and “R” amino acids in approximately even ratios in the pre-biotic world that came from a comet or from static electrical discharges or whatever mechanism is suggested then any self-organized life system should contain approximately equal amounts of “D” and “L” amino acids. It could be argued that the resultant chemical structures were not conducive to life and therefore did not survive. But then it becomes necessary to prove that it is possible (or, more accurately, probable) for a chain of single conformation amino acids to form into the chain sizes and shapes necessary to support life and reproduce itself spontaneously. The minimum number of proteins necessary for this is in the hundreds. And all of them require, at the minimum, dozens of amino acids. And they all have to be in the same 3-dimensional conformation. It also becomes necessary to explain why there is no life that contains nothing but “D” conformation amino acids. So what are these odds? I don’t know and I suspect no one at NASA wants to calculate the probabilities because they know that the probabilities make the events simply too overwhelmingly unlikely to occur spontaneously.  This is why the lack of information regarding the conformation of glycine is therefore somewhat suspicious.

But wait a minute. There’s also a claim here that “the fundamental building blocks of life are prevalent” in space. There are a number of problems with this. First, there are noun problems. The detection of a single amino acid in a single comet tail does not warrant the claim that “the building blocks of life are prevalent.” Second, there’s also an adverb problem. The only claim that can be made legitimately is that “a building block of life has been detected.” The detection of small amounts of a single amino acid is hardly “prevalence.” Third, the conclusion in the quote that “life in the universe may be common rather than rare” does not follow because the primary premise, that the building blocks are prevalent in space, has not been proven or even implied by the presence of a single, simple organic acid in a single comet tail.

And, of course, none of the other 21 amino acid residues were found in the comet residue. This doesn’t completely invalidate the case NASA’s trying to make, but it certainly puts a gaping hole in the fabric of their argument. A protein, which is a chain or a collection of chains of  from a few to hundreds of thousands of amino acids could be made of a single amino acid but its usefulness in any biological process is highly doubtful. One of these has never been found. It therefore follows that life cannot spontaneously self-generate from a single amino acid. Considering the necessity of proper protein size and shape for functionality, it seems likely that is all 22 amino acids must be present or nothing as regards the spontaneous generation of life. What NASA wants you to ask is “are the other amino acids there, too?”

The reason that the report by NASA is suspicious are the motivations behind the hype from them. Scientists are desperate to find proof of at least two things that they believe would bring an end to the Intelligent Design/Creation Science (IDCS) opposition to neo-Darwinist dogma. First, they believe that the discovery of life on other planets could be the stake through the heart of IDCS. It is not clear why they believe this since an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Creator of the universe and all things contained in it could just as easily create life on another planet as on earth. Furthermore, if only “simple” (a silly description that belies the tremendous complexity found in all life forms on this planet, including so-called “primitive” forms) forms are found and no evidence of earlier or transitional forms (sound familiar?) are found,then how does this prove that the life on that planet evolved? Are there theological difficulties with life on other planets? Yes, but that’s really outside the scope of the discussion.

The second thing that scientists must prove is that it is possible for the self-organization and activation of hundreds of organic chemicals into the proper conformation to sustain life and reproduce itself. That can only be made remotely more probable if the raw materials are available in the same areas in very large quantities. Hence the speculation and exaggeration about comets containing the “building blocks of life”  in large quantities.

OK, but why is NASA’s being a little overly enthusiastic about an interesting but not overly remarkable find? Because what NASA wants desperately is MONEY! This is an attempt to dupe taxpayers into looking the other way while their pockets are emptied of billions of dollars for interesting but clearly unconstitutional programs like the Stardust and the manned Mars mission projects. As long as NASA can use a shell game consisting of speculation, equivocation and exaggeration to hide the pea of the waste of tax dollars for research of incredibly high cost and even more highly questionable value, these kinds of “news” releases and hype in scientific journals, funded in large part from government grants of even more tax dollars, will continue.

Posted in Commentary, Education, Public Policy Principles News, Public Policy Radar, Taxation.