“Chemists have tried to imitate the chemical conditions of the young earth. They have put these simple substances in a flask (water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen) and supplied a source of energy such as ultraviolet light or electric sparks. After a few weeks of this, something interesting is usually found inside the flask: a weak brown soup containing a large number of molecules more complex than the ones originally put in. In particular amino acids are found – the building blocks of proteins, one of the two great biological molecules.”[1]

CLICK. I flick the switch and the UV light flickers to life, buzzing loudly casting its blue glow across the watermarked white walls and lighting up the diagrams which are plastered across them. I fill the tank with the foaming solution which glows a little as it effervesces. The pump is connected and the plastic pipe is lowered into the now gently fizzing fluid.



Gloved hands carry the foil wrapped parcel from its glass chamber, carefully unwrap the foil, lift the rock and lower it into the glowing liquid, resting it on the plastic tube as it sits on the bottom of the tank. Bubbles escape around the rock, massaging its smooth grey surface as if in a foaming hot tub.



Now to add the organic compounds, sprinkling the granules on the surface of the churning fluid, watching as they are sucked down, spinning in the spiralling liquid.  I leave the process to take its course and write up my report, the first of many, as I watch each day for signs of life and carefully record any changes, however tiny, that might occur in the apparently dormant stone.


[1] Quoted from The Selfish Gene. Wikipedia says “The Miller–Urey experiment was a chemical experiment that simulated the conditions thought at the time (1952) to be present on the early Earth and tested the chemical origin of life under those conditions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller%E2%80%93Urey_experiment



Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene[1]  describes how he thinks life began on earth:

“In the beginning was simplicity… Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they ended up manufacturing people”

Starting with Survival of the stable: “A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough to deserve a name”… it’s why bubbles are round “because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas” and salt crystals are cubes “because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride ions together”

“The earliest form of natural selection was simply a selection of stable forms and a rejection of unstable ones.” – if a cluster of molecules wasn’t stable, then after a short time it would simply cease to exist.

But this still doesn’t explain why some stable groups of molecules became “life” while others didn’t – though I am beginning to understand now that maybe there were thousands, even millions of potential opportunities for life to become established but they just didn’t pass the stability test.

NOW scientists like John Craig Venter experiment with DNA to create new lifeforms through synthetic biology[2] 

John Craig Venter is an American, biochemist, geneticist, biotechnologist and businessman. He is known for being involved with sequencing the second human genome and assembled the first team to transfect a cell with a synthetic chromosome. In 2010, New Statesman magazine listed Craig Venter at 14th in the list of “The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures.

(Image from a collaboration with photographer Vicki Painting)

 [A voice from the future says: “Can you believe that once upon a time people used to leave reproduction to chance – without any planning or thought for how to make a better offspring. How irresponsible”]

NEXT – The Miller-Urey Experiment

[1] The Selfish Gene (pp12-13-14)

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/dna-life-form-new-a-t-c-g-x-y-scripps-research-institute-synthetic-semi-a7544056.html


Cont’d from last time: Sadly my frog is definitely, permanently dead.”

But maybe my rock is not dead – it just appears to have no life.

Some years ago I visited artist Andy Holden’s exhibition, Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape, in which the artist explored ideas about the laws of physics as seen in cartoons, a place “where it seems like anything might be possible, but not everything is[1]. Through the exhibition, Holden suggested the possibility that maybe there is no such thing as an inanimate object. This theory seemed to me to present interesting possibilities.

My blog entry from 4th June 2013:

“The stones haven’t grown. I might need to be a bit more scientific about providing the right conditions for life to start.

It is true, I have paid less attention than I should have to the stones which I originally planted all those months ago, but still 4 months on, there is not a single sign of ANY change in them at all.

I have been doing some research, looking at the ways in which seeds and stones sometimes need a kick start to trigger germination or growth of some sort – extreme heat or cold or even fire; soaking in water; scarifying; cracking; feeding… starving.

I’m interested in the chemistry involved in the origins of life and also in the part played by electrical charges in these processes so I have begun to explore the effects of some of these things on my stones in an attempt to somehow nudge them into life. Meanwhile, I will need to do more research, more experiments, more reading and learning to try to understand the combinations of chemistry and energy that might just make my stones grow.”

I started simply – “let’s try just planting some pebbles and see if they’ll grow.”

“Maybe all that’s needed is a little bit of tlc. Rocks don’t normally get that sort of attention because nobody thinks about giving it to them, but maybe that’s all they need – just a little bit of looking after… Pots, soil, water – and the alternative blotting paper in a jar method because that always worked with broad beans at school.”

NOW, people don’t need soil to grow plants, or even sunlight for that matter.

[A voice from the future says: “Did you know that once people used to bury roots and seeds in the mud to try to make them grow?”]

A nourishing solution fed through a drip. An electrical charge like that from a defibrillator. But no, still no success. Maybe I’m being impatient…

… let’s pause and re-think.

NEXT – In the beginning was Simplicity

[1] https://www.stanleypickergallery.org/fellowships/andy-holden/


A hazy blue stillness. Nothing moves. Until a sudden ripple disturbs the soupy water, stirs the suspended particles. Powerful legs propel the creature through the water and paddle madly as the alarmed frog attempts to secrete itself in a dark crevice. Panic subsides; danger has passed and the frog allows itself to hang in the water, recovering, before its strong legs push off again into deeper water and the cover of thick weed. Nearby, clusters of lustrous jelly eggs float just beneath the surface. In a matter of days, each egg’s black nucelus grows and changes and tiny embryos begin to wriggle in the thick mucous, waiting for the right time for their release.

In an article for Scientific American entitled Are Viruses Alive? Professor Luis P. Villarreal wrote,

“What exactly defines “life?” A precise scientific definition of life is an elusive thing, but most observers would agree that life includes certain qualities in addition to an ability to replicate. For example, a living entity is in a state bounded by birth and death. Living organisms also are thought to require a degree of biochemical autonomy, carrying on the metabolic activities that produce the molecules and energy needed to sustain the organism. This level of autonomy is essential to most definitions.”

A chance encounter with a dead frog discovered in my pond reminds me of the connection between electricity and life and the work of Luigi Galvani who experimented with the effects of electricity on dead tissue, famously making dead frogs’ legs kick in response to electrical charge.

NOW medics routinely shock people back to life using defibrillators.

[A voice from the future says, “Can you believe that once people were thought to be dead just because their heart stopped beating?”]

Sadly my frog is definitely, permanently dead.

NEXT – Trying to activate my stone



For several years now I’ve been having a relationship with this small rock. Here it is…

I went looking for a special stone on the beach in my lunch-break one day. Of course Eastbourne beach is covered in likely candidates – thousands, maybe millions of them – but this one was special. I didn’t so much find this one, as it found me. I saw it from the promenade, sitting up on top of all the others.

It’s a flint. It’s bigger than a heart, smaller than a head; small enough to hold in my hand but heavy enough to call “a rock”.

I climbed down onto the beach and picked it up… and that was the beginning.

I have a small collection of rocks, all of which are pretty unremarkable, except for some reason I have picked them up and kept them. Here’s another one…

I believe this is an Iron Sulphide nodule. I like this one because it reminds me of distant planets. It’s very compact and seems far too heavy for its size.

And this one…

This was part of an artwork, Impossible Changeling by Caroline Wright. Again – it found me. It was one of  100 gilded stones which were distributed by the artist on Eastbourne beaches for people to find. I’ve no idea how many were eventually found, but, like the flint, this one stood out for me among all the hundreds of thousands of pebbles on the beach – I couldn’t miss it.

Lyall Watson in his book The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects[1] calls objects such as my rocks, “notions”.

“A notion, is an inanimate object which need have no intrinsic value or practical utility, but which nevertheless demands attention and exercises power over those people to whom it appeals… a thing with meaning, a mind thing; something of consequence which inspires thought. And once chosen a circuit is completed which provides a flow of energy that gives a notion its power.”

Now this all sounds a bit metaphysical to me and I’m more of a pragmatist than a metaphysicist, but these stones have led me to explore some new thoughts and ask some questions – the most fundamental one being: “In the beginning… why did some clusters of molecules become this thing we call life while others remained ‘inanimate’ like my rock.” And anyway… what is life? What is “the spark of life”? And where does the spark come from? And of course, a proposition posed some years ago by artist Andy Holden, a suggestion which has stayed with me all this time, “Maybe there is no such a thing as an inanimate object.”

[1] The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects (pp72-74)

NEXT – An Encounter With A Dead Frog…