Evolution in the News - June 2011
by Do-While Jones

A Nobel Mistake

Just because someone wins the Nobel Prize, it doesn’t mean he is right.

As Nobel Prize winners gather this month to share their wisdom with younger researchers, Scientific American recalls some of the articles that Nobel laureates have published in our pages. 1

In particular, they recall Nobel laureate George Wald writing this in the August, 1954, issue.

Recently, Harold Urey, Nobel laureate in chemistry, has become interested in the degree to which electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere may promote the formation of organic compounds. One of his students, S. L. Miller, performed the simple experiment of circulating a mixture of water vapor, methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3) and hydrogen—all gases believed to have been present in the early atmosphere of the earth—continuously for a week over an electric spark. … The amazing result changes at a stroke our ideas of the probability of spontaneous formation of amino acids. … We have therefore a genuine basis for the view that he molecules of our oceanic broth will not only come together spontaneously to form aggregates but in doing so will spontaneously achieve various types and degrees of order. 2

These two Noble Prize winners (Urey and Wald), and other less celebrated scientists, thought organic molecules would naturally form amino acids, which would naturally form proteins, which would naturally build cells filled with protoplasm, which would (under the right conditions) naturally come to life and reproduce themselves. They thought higher and higher degrees of order would naturally arise from chaos.

We now know that they were wrong.

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1 Scientific American, June 2011, “A Nobel Celebration”, page 54
2 ibid. , page 56