episode #121 origin of life

a detail of a blue glass water bottle

Billions of years ago, Earth, along with the rest of our solar system, was entirely unrecognisable, existing only as an enormous cloud of dust and gas. There are many models, but little consensus, on how life emerged from non-living chemicals. 

Lightning may have provided the spark needed for life to begin. Electric sparks can generate amino acids and sugars from an atmosphere loaded with water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen, as was shown in the famous Miller-Urey experiment  in 1952, according to Scientific American. The experiment’s findings suggested that lightning might have helped create the key building blocks of life on Earth in its early days. Over millions of years, larger and more complex molecules could form. 

Although research since then has revealed the early atmosphere of Earth was actually hydrogen-poor, scientists have suggested that volcanic clouds in the early atmosphere might have held methane, ammonia and hydrogen and been filled with lightning as well, according to the University of California.

The first molecules of life might have met on clay, according to an idea elaborated by organic chemist Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Cairns-Smith proposed in his 1985 controversial book “Seven Clues to the Origin of Life”, that clay crystals preserve their structure as they grow and stick together to form areas exposed to different environments and trap other molecules along the way and organise them into patterns much like our genes do now.

Author of a book Seven Clues to the Origin of Life: A Scientific Detective Story states at the beginning three facts:

Fact one: There is life on earth.

Fact two: All living things are at root the same.

Fact three: All known living things are complicated.

Perhaps life did not begin on Earth at all, but was brought here from elsewhere in space, a notion known as panspermia, according to NASA. For instance, rocks regularly get blasted off Mars by cosmic impacts, and a number of Martian meteorites have been found on Earth that some researchers have controversially suggested brought microbes over here, potentially making us all Martians originally. Other scientists have even suggested that life might have hitchhiked on comets from other star systems. However, even if these concepts were true, the question of how life began on Earth would then only change to how life began elsewhere in space.

For many years we are also obsessed by Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Dougles added a central joke which has become more famous over the years than the novel itself: “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.” He did not know that scores of adolescents have posited theories about significance of the number. The actor Stephen Fry claimed to know the true answer, but won’t tell, saying he’ll take it to his grave. The author himself rather undermined the myriad analyses when he dismissed them all with the simple answer that the choice of the number was a joke.


The Cinematic Orchestra feat. Roots Manuva: A Caged Bird (Imitations of Life)

Silent Poets feat. Nipps: Eternal Life

N.E.R.D.: Life As a Fish

Daft Punk: High Life

Jazztronik: Life Syncopation (Interlude)

Hot Chip: One Life Stand

Gabin: Life Can Be So Beautiful

The Love Affair: Never In My Life

Röyksopp: True to Life

Eliot Goldenthal: Still Life

Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm: Life Story

A community radio midnight show Through the Bohemian Looking Glass is aired Sunday, Tuesday and Friday night at midnight (GMT), that means you stay late on Saturday, Monday and Thursday. A new episode is aired every Sunday midnight (the night between Saturday and Sunday) on Wirral Wave radio or AirTime. Later on SoundCloud for some time.