Bob Hazen: The Trumpeter Of Astrobiology

After reviewing Robert M. Hazen’s 28-page CV. of his work as an experimental mineralogist (listing grant $$$ too), as an educator, author of a dozen books and a symphonic trumpeter – I was most charmed to read that a new mineral “precipitated” by …


Bob Hazen: The Trumpeter Of Astrobiology

By SUZAN MAZUR

After reviewing Robert M. Hazen’s 28-page C.V. of his work as an experimental mineralogist (listing grant $$$ too), as an educator, author of a dozen books and a symphonic trumpeter – I was most charmed to read that a new mineral “precipitated” by microbes in California’s highly alkaline Lake Mono had been named in his honor in March of this year: “hazenite”. Bob Hazen is the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University. For the last 30 years, Hazen has also been a scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory. He first took his investigations into minerals and the origin of life to NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in 1996, where he continues to play an important role in the astrobiology program.

His friend, paleontologist Niles Eldredge, attests to Bob Hazen’s talent as a trumpeter (he was president of the MIT Symphony Orchestra in the late 60s). Hazen has appeared as a soloist with the National Gallery Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Esplanade Orchestra, at the Kennedy Center and on BBC-TV and performed with the Metropolitan Opera, Boston and National Symphonies, Orchestre de Paris and the Kirov and Royal Ballets (partial list).

Hazen is not infrequently on television and radio, most recently in the History Channel’s Origins of Life documentary earlier this summer. He served on the Committee to revise the National Academy of Sciences’ publication Science, Evolution and Creationism (the book has been criticized by some for promoting a dying theory of evolution).

He lists two pages of awards and honors on his C.V., including National Science Foundation’s Distinguished Public Lecturer (2007). Hazen has also served as president and vice president of the Mineralogical Society of America. His B.S. and S.M. degrees in Earth Science are from MIT (president of MIT’s Geology Club, too) and his Ph.D. in Mineralogy and Crystallography is from Harvard.

Our recent phone conversation about astrobiology follows

Robert Hazen: Of course astrobiology exists. Any human endeavor “exists” where there’s a group of people, in this case it’s probably 1,000 researchers, who have a common set of goals and aspirations. . .

Astrobiology is a search for the origin, distribution and future of life in the Universe. What its underlying assumptions and hypotheses are is quite clear. First is we know life exists on Earth. In some way there was an origin of life on Earth. As scientists we accept the hypothesis there’s a chemical and physical basis for that origin that is natural, in accordance with natural laws.

Suzan Mazur: Astrobiology includes astronomy, biology, chemistry and geology?

Robert Hazen: Absolutely. And physics, too. It’s a very integrated science.

Suzan Mazur: That’s a huge field.

Robert Hazen: It is a huge field, but it is also one fairly well defined in the sense that we have some very specific questions. We want to understand the origin of life.

Suzan Mazur: “What are its laws?” — as philosopher Jerry Fodor has asked.

Robert Hazen: Well, there’s the epistemological. Does every scientific question have to be first rooted in laws? Here’s my take on it.

I did a book some years ago with a distinguished biologist, Maxine Singer. It was basically exploring the unanswered questions in science. Rather than ask what are the laws, what we zeroed in on is the fact that there are four distinct kinds of questions scientists ask about the natural world.

First are existence questions — going out and reporting what’s out there. The astrobiology field is looking for signs of ancient life on Earth as well as elsewhere.

Second is origins. Astrobiology asks, where did life originate?

Third is process. How do things work? Scientists spend most of their time thinking about how systems work. Astrobiology addresses exactly that: How do living things organize themselves? How did they evolve? How did they adapt to different environments?

Finally there are applied questions. Ways in which you can take your understanding of the first three categories and alter or improve human existence. That’s been shown over and over again with astrobiology. For example, in the field of molecular evolution. Used extensively in medicine.

Astrobiology as a field has a core set of fundamental questions; that’s mainstream to what scientists do. So the question: what are the astrobiology laws? is a little bit of a red herring.

The thinking is not that there are laws of astrobiology, so therefore it is a science, rather that there are fundamental questions astrobiologists are asking and attempting to answer through scientific processes — and therefore astrobiology is a science.

Suzan Mazur: Niles Eldredge earlier this year told me that you’re a terrific trumpet player and mineralogist, but that you’re not an evolutionary biologist. So “be careful” he said

Robert Hazen: Niles is absolutely correct, I’m not an evolutionary biologist.

Suzan Mazur: But I’d like to ask you how scientists can comfortably start in the middle of the evolutionary process — that is, once life is already present, and make accurate assessments, if the connection to origin of life remains elusive? And that’s where you come in as a mineralogist. Right?

Robert Hazen: Yes. Absolutely. And that’s true.

Suzan Mazur: You’re comfortable speaking to origin of life issues.

Robert Hazen: I’m comfortable speaking to origin of life issues because the origin of life is not a biological or evolutionary process. Origin of life is a geochemical process. It involves self-organization — where you’ve brought together rocks and minerals, the atmosphere and the oceans, various chemical reactions that occurred. Some of those processes are deterministic.

We can study them with great rigor in the laboratory. We see there are processes of self-organization – primarily on surfaces. And those surface organization processes you can study quite distinctly and they have been studied a great deal and continue to be a very exciting area of forefront research.

Suzan Mazur: But evolution doesn’t stop after the mineral phase, does it?.

Robert Hazen: When we talk about evolution, there are many many definitions.

Suzan Mazur: Well that’s a problem. The semantics.

Robert Hazen: The semantics. I’m not talking about evolution by a biological natural selection genetic mechanism. What I’m interested in is the period before there was a genetic mechanism.

Suzan Mazur: But can you have a separation?

Robert Hazen: Oh you absolutely have to have a separation between the two, I think. The first step in the origin of life – the earliest chemical steps, which is what I’m studying.

Let me make it clear, when I say I’m studying the origin of life, my personal interest and my research is in the earliest stages of what’s known as “chemical evolution” — the chemical synthesis of organic materials and the organization of those. This is not yet a life form in any sense of the modern word.

What we’re looking for is the earliest stages of organization of those chemicals. So this is really a geochemical process of organization. And the reason that astrobiology tackles this is that we say that these early steps are going to occur on any Earth-like planet and moon.

Suzan Mazur: Complexity pioneer Stuart Kauffman said that natural selection exists throughout the Universe wherever there is life. Harvard’s Andrew Knoll, who appeared in the Origins of Life History Channel documentary with you this summer, told me at the Rockefeller University Evolution symposium in May that “It’s natural selection every step of the way.”

However, Stuart Newman in his recent paper for Physical Biology proposes all of today’s 35 or so modern animal phyla emerged as a result of self-organization by the time of the Cambrian explosion a half billion years ago using a pattern language (dynamical patterning modules), with selection following as a “stabilizer”.

What is your position on natural selection?

Robert Hazen: Again, I think there’s a semantics question here. Selection – I’m not talking about Darwinian natural selection in the way that Darwin characterized it as survival of the fittest of the population. That’s very specific.

Just as evolution has many different meanings from change over time to common descent to complexification to the specifics of Darwinian biological natural selection, I think the word natural selection has that ring of Darwinian survival of the fittest, but there’s also a more general use of the term selection. That is, that if you supply selective pressures, which always happens in a natural setting if there are gradients of energy. Or if there are cycles such as day – night, light – dark, hot – cold, wet – dry. And those cycles tend to winnow out certain chemicals and enhance the population of other chemicals. That is a selective process.

It is a natural process. It is not “natural selection” the way that Darwin used it. But it is a natural selective process.

I agree with what everybody just said (above). I’m not sure that it didn’t occur before 500 million years ago, because I think we definitely see natural selection going on in microbial populations. We see that today. My assumption – although I’m not an evolutionary biologist – my assumption would be that right from the very first cell that had a genetic apparatus and was replicating and was competing to survive in a whole variety of different environments, that you would have to have had some kind of logical Darwinian natural selection going on.

Suzan Mazur: So you don’t think that keeping natural selection in the equation may prevent us from seeing life as it may exist elsewhere?

Robert Hazen: When we look for life elsewhere, it’s really a chemical problem. The characteristics of all living things, no matter what you think they are — chemical systems that are imagined, ones that we haven’t yet imagined — the common characteristics of all those different systems is going to be chemical idiosyncrasies.

What I mean by that is that when you have all the prebiotic organic molecules that could be synthesized — hundreds of different amino acids, left-handed amino acids, right-handed amino acids, lots of different sugars, lots of different lipids, etc — life tends to use a very small subset of all those different kinds of molecules. So in searching for life elsewhere, it’s going to be a search for distinctive suites of organic molecules. It’s not a search for a structure or organization.

I think it’s very unlikely, for example, that we’ll see on Mars some fossil of a thing, even with a microscope. But we may find suites of preserved organic molecules. Like in petroleum where you find a very idiosyncratic suite of molecules. It’s not the thing you expect if you blasted a synthesis out of lots of hydrocarbons.

Suzan Mazur: Are you looking at abiotic oil at all?

Robert Hazen: That is a very different subject, and there are many resources. There is a new book on oil by Eric Roston. I just chaired a conference at the Carnegie Institution, called the deep carbon cycle. It’s on the Carnegie web site. We had experts from all over the world. You can see most of the lectures, including lectures by Russian scientists who believe that petroleum is virtually all abiotic. And hear lectures by American petroleum geologists who think oil is virtually all biological. It’s still an unresolved issue.

Suzan Mazur: Are you familiar with the Astrobiology Primer that NASA/NAI put out that Lucas Mix edited, which only refers to natural selection and neutral selection? Isn’t that a bit limiting?

Robert Hazen: So much of this is semantics. When you talk about selection, some people say no it’s not selection, it’s self-organization. But self-organization is a selection process. It’s not natural selection in the Darwinian sense. The fact that one molecule is responding to its local environment is always a driving mechanism. The whole idea of self-organization of lipid vesicles, for example, of self-organization on a mineral surface — that is a selection process. And very much in the mainstream of what people are thinking about.

Don’t be concerned about a conflict between people who say – “oh, it’s self-organization” or “oh, it’s selection”. To some extent this is really a kind of a

Suzan Mazur: Word game.

Robert Hazen: It’s a word game. The words evolution and natural selection – they have this emotional baggage, which is understandable I think. But it doesn’t have to be a big conflict.

Selection as a universal process starts with the Big Bang. Which isotopes form? What kinds of planets form? How does the core separate from the surface? Those are all selection processes.

Suzan Mazur: I saw your early work with Larry Finger cited in Evolution without Selection (1988), the book by University of Lund cytogeneticist Antonio Lima-de-Faria. It was in a discussion regarding origin of form in minerals, the atomic composition and assembly.

Robert Hazen: I wasn’t doing origin of life work back then.

Suzan Mazur: Lima-de-Faria cites your work in relation to atomic composition and assembly in carbon and the crystallizing as diamond and graphite. He thinks minerals have had their own separate evolution, and that the mineral evolution preceded the biological.

He was saying this 20 years ago, but he’s told me recently that his thinking has not changed. He says it’s important to go back to the atomic, chemical and mineral footprints to get the story right about biological evolution – which he considers the “terminal” phase.

I actually brought this up at a World Science Festival panel on the “Laws of Life” at NYU in June. Synthetic biology pioneer Steve Benner and astrobiologist Paul Davies were on the panel. Rockefeller University president Paul Nurse hosted the previous panel and said he predicted that biology will be looking to physics for answers on evolution.

Benner said he agreed with his “distinguished colleague from Lund” Lima-de-Faria: “But certainly our view of how life originated on Earth is much dependant on minerals being involved in the process to control the chemistry.”

And then Paul Davies said, “There has to be a pathway from chemistry to biology, powerful levels before Darwinian evolution even kicks in.”

Lima-de-Faria thinks “[N]othing essentially new arose as biological evolution emerged.” He says what looks new are the “combinations that seem drastically unrelated, only because they are so severely canalized into a narrow and limited number of variation channels.”

I was just wondering what your response to that is?

Are you still there?

Robert Hazen: Absolutely. I’m listening to you very intently.

Suzan Mazur: Lima-de-Faria says that minerals and simple chemicals like water don’t have genes but “display the constancy of pattern and the ability to change by forming a large number of forms” — they behave like an organism. That neither water nor calcite have genes but “possess mechanisms. . we consider fundamental gene attributes.” He also writes that “the main types of plant and animal patterns are already present in minerals”.

There was a rustle in the room when I brought up the ideas of Lima-de-Faria, but if the Benner and Davies comments are representative, more scientists are thinking this way.

Robert Hazen: I think I understand what he’s driving at and I don’t want to endorse or reject the points of view cause I’d really need to hear more in detail.

Suzan Mazur: You’ve never read the book?

Robert Hazen: I just finished a paper called “Mineral Evolution” that is now in press in a journal called the American Mineralogist. There are seven co-authors and we talk about this idea of the mineral kingdom going through an evolutionary process. By that I want to make very clear what I mean by evolution. It’s not just change over time. In this case it’s diversification or complexification over time.

Let me give you a brief abstract of this idea: All terrestrial planets like Earth, Mars and Mercury and their moons, etc. begin in a pre-solar cloud of dust and gas. In that pre-solar cloud, there are microminerals – about a dozen different minerals: diamond, graphite, corundum, spinel — all together about a dozen different minerals.

And as you clump those together to form the earliest bodies and meteorites and asteroidal bodies, you get about 60 different minerals through heating of the sun in the primary formation of minerals. About 60 different minerals that form the most primitive minerals in what are called chondrite meteorites.

And then you go through periods of aqueous alteration. And then these planetismals get larger. You get up to about 250 different minerals. You see increasing complexification, from 12 to 60 to 250 to 350 in a place like Mercury, to 500 in a place like the moon.

And with plate tectonics you add more minerals and you go to 1,000. You go to 1,500 and finally when life kicks in on Earth you get maybe another 3,000 known minerals. So about two-thirds of all the known minerals on Earth actually result in a very complex feedback mechanism with life. That’s what we call “mineral evolution”.

Now it’s not Darwinian natural selection by any means. But it is a change over time. And it follows fundamental laws of physics and chemistry – and selection, leading to a gradual complexification or diversification of the mineral kingdom.

That’s something I see as a process of evolution, which in many ways, is parallel to biological evolution.

Niles Eldredge, who you mentioned, and I have been working on a paper called “Themes and Variations in Complex Evolving Systems” . The idea being that in both natural systems and in non-biological and biological systems, in cornets — which Niles Eldredge talks about — in language, you see similar themes.

You have species. You have diversification . You have extinction. You have punctuation. You have selection. Those five characteristics and others as well are common to all evolving systems whether it be minerals or language or biology or microbes or bears. And the fact is that there are also fundamental differences amongst those different systems.

I’m very sympathetic to people who see echoes of biology in mineralogy or echoes of biology in language.

Suzan Mazur: Here’s something else that Lima-de-Faria said about minerals. “The body of a human like that of any other mammal is built according to a crystal plan. Bilateral symmetry to humans is indistinguishable from the twinning process in minerals.”

Robert Hazen: Hmmm.

Suzan Mazur: “The two halves of the body are built just as contact crystal twins. They are intercharacterized by the fusion of two structures that are identical. They have an axis in common and one half is grown in position which corresponds to a rotation of 180 degrees thereby becoming a mirror image of the other.”

Robert Hazen: I understand the rhetoric. I think there are some inaccuracies in that particular statement. If you look at the internal organs they’re not all bilaterally symmetric.

Suzan Mazur: He’s saying that the cell was formed by the same atoms in minerals and that the cell continues to receive many of them from this source. He notes that “it’s not surprising that periodicity is present at the biological level.” Things are ordered. The biology behaves according to the previous footprints that were laid down.

Robert Hazen: I certainly agree that the chemical principles that govern rocks and minerals are the exact same chemical principles that govern all living things. All molecules. All living cells. And the interaction of those molecules and biological systems. And that leads to chemical bonding from just a few basic types. And it leads to self-organization of those molecules into larger structures based on energetics. That’s absolutely true. It’s what governs the forms and minerals in the natural world. Because an individual molecule can only respond to its immediate chemical environment. An individual cell can only respond to its immediate chemical environment. So how you go from a single cell in development through the whole amazing developmental process that leads to a complex individual can only be governed by the local immediate chemical forces and mechanical forces that surround an individual thing and that leads to kinds of self-organization. And so what I would say is that there’s a little more nuance.

The more nuanced view might be that, yes indeed, the chemical laws are the same for minerals and for living things. And in each case the local molecules and atoms respond only to chemical environment. However, I would say the biological system is different from minerals. And there are two fundamental differences between a biological cell or organism and mineral.

In a biological cell or organism there are genes that subtly change through mutation. As a result the chemicals involved can change. Quartz is always quartz. It’s always SIO2. The quartz that formed on Earth four and a half billion years ago is the same as quartz today. Whereas, a single cell with its genetic complement, which undergoes these mutational changes — presumably the mutations themselves are random, while the selection process is not — so gradually a cell can change from generation to generation. As a result the chemicals that the cell produces change. Now the same chemical principles operate on the cell as they do on the minerals.

Suzan Mazur: Lima-de-Faria (a cytogeneticist) would argue that mutation doesn’t exist, that everything is ordered. All these things respond to a certain order that’s been established through the various evolutions (atomic, chemical, mineral, biological).

Robert Hazen: Again, I’m not an evolutionary biologist but I do teach introductory genetics in my science literacy class and I think it’s very much against the mainstream point of view.

We can sequence your cytochrome, mine and those of a chimpanzee and you can see that there are small characteristic differences and either those were created by design differently, which I don’t accept cause it’s not a scientific explanation, or else there was a mutational process that gradually caused different letters of the genetic code to change. Therefore different amino acids to be introduced to the protein and therefore those proteins are different chemically, which means that they have different chemical characteristics in terms of their response to their immediate neighbor. That’s the only thing that can really control the behavior of a biological system or a mineralogical system is the local chemical forces that are created by specific atoms and molecules.

If you accept a natural explanation and how the natural world work, then you basically have to talk about interactions among atoms and molecules. And self-organization is a consequence of that. But if you say it’s a chemical process, then you have to be concerned about what those chemicals are. In as much as chemicals can change in a biological system through gradual mutation and therefore genetic changes, different proteins form because there’s a different sequence of amino acids. It’s different with minerals.

Suzan Mazur: In light of what Paul Nurse said at the World Science Festival panel that biology may now be looking to physics for answers regarding evolution and your review of Stuart Pivar’s concept of the toroidal model. By the way, he’s just come back from Santa Fe Institute where he apparently had an enthusiastic reception about his work.

Robert Hazen: Is that someone from the Santa Fe Institute or Stuart who told you that?

Suzan Mazur: He met with a panel of people there, Geoffrey West and others.

Robert Hazen: Have you spoken with them?

Suzan Mazur: That’s all I’ve heard.

Robert Hazen: When I reviewed Stuart Pivar’s book I tried to take it as seriously as I could. I gave him a four and a half page detailed critique. Said this was never to be used except in its entirety. He extracted four or so paragraphs from that – put in juxtaposition — made it sound like I was endorsing his work. Or at least taking it seriously. And I really want to make it clear that I am not in any way a supporter of Stuart Pivar’s work. I think there are aspects of his ideas that could be tested. That it’s very interesting the idea of where different morphotypes come from. And commonality – that’s a fascinating idea that could be explored. But his rhetoric rejecting out of hand Darwinian evolution. . . .

[Link To Hazen’s 2007 Review]

You see, let me take a step back. There’s one thing I want you to understand about where I come from. It’s more philosophical. It’s that the history of science – as you have found out and you’re very good at picking up on this – is often laced with people who establish a position that is very intransigent. This is the way it is. And someone else will say no this is some other way.

You have people who, for example, say it’s gradualism versus punctuation. It is neptunism versus plutonism. It’s uniformatariansim versus catastrophism. And these polarized debates have popped up over and over in the history of science.

It’s a way that someone can make noise. It’s a way that they can establish themselves or take a stand or somehow get behind a particular idea and it gives their career a focus. But what I’m finding over and over again in the history of science is that these dichotomies are false. That it’s a much more nuanced answer.

It’s not uniformatarianism or catastrophism. In fact the history of Earth is characterized by long periods of gradual change, punctuated by very dramatic change, like asteroid impact. Both are true. It’s not neptunism versus plutonism. Rocks form both by agencies of water and agencies of heat. It’s not just whether the early atmosphere was nonoxygenic or oxygenic. There was a gradual change from one to the other.

In the case of Stuart Pivar he is promoting an idea about the structural organization of biology which I think has some very real merit, but he rejects out of hand anything to do with Darwinian evolution.

Suzan Mazur: A lot of people do.

Robert Hazen: People are polarized. It’s not necessary to reject one in order to accept the other. The agency of change in biology over time that we see in the fossil record, that we see in modern life, that we see in microbes in hospitals, that we see in viruses much more rapidly have to do with mutation and accumulated changes. The changes themselves may be random, but the selection process is not. Selection is never random. By definition selection is non-random. In fact in many cases it’s almost a completely deterministic aspect of change.

Suzan Mazur: How fast is astrobiology growing?

Robert Hazen: Astrobiology is growing tremendously because there is a stable source of funding. Let’s face it. Science is a social endeavor. If people can get jobs, they’re going to go into the field. Right now NASA and other government agencies and also non-governmental agencies are putting money into this. They see this as a very exciting and promising field. We’re also learning things about the natural world, about the extremes of life that have tremendous technological implications. And those technological implications help drive science as well.

Suzan Mazur: Do you have plans to update the content of the History Channel Origins of Life which I think identified Darwinian natural selection as the mechanism of evolution?

Robert Hazen: It first appeared in June so I don’t think they’re going to do anything right away. You know how these things are. People move on to other projects. . . There are always new shows on origin of life coming along because there a lot of cable channels and they all have to fill up 24 hours a day.

Suzan Mazur: We haven’t seen these kind of topics emerge on Charlie Rose yet or serious television panels.

Robert Hazen: And the trouble with talking to me as a scientist – I like to bring in nuance. I don’t like black and white. That’s why as much as I have strong opinions about things like Intelligent Design, I don’t do debates. Public debates. Because it’s just the wrong forum.

Suzan Mazur: Can you address the difference between self-organization and Intelligent Design. There seems to be a reluctance to talk much about self-organization because of a misperceived connection to Intelligent Design. In fact, the word self-organization as part of the new “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis,” which the Altenberg 16 kicked off earlier this month in Austria, has been tucked into the umbrella term “phenotypic plasticity.”

Robert Hazen: Maybe that’s true [reluctance to talk about self-organization] in some cases, but not for me because I’ve seen self-organization at work in test tubes, seen it at work under a microscope. Self-organization is just a response to local chemical interactions, chemical bonding. There’s nothing mystical about it. There’s nothing intelligent or designed about it.

I think there’s also a semantics problem here. All the scientists I know accept the basic laws of chemistry and physics. Some of those laws have to do with the interaction of molecules. They’re electrostatic in nature and they form metallic bonding, ionic and covalent bonding, hydrogen bonding, Van der Waals forces and so forth. Those kinds of ways that atoms interact are fundamental to the cosmos. They’re built to the very nature of the electron.

So when you say do you have to start applying principles of physics as opposed to chemistry. I see it as continuity. I don’t see a division between physics and chemistry. That chemical bonding is a physical process.

Self-organization is just a consequence of minimizing the energy of a system which happens spontaneously. It happens inevitably. It’s a deterministic thing. So how could self-organization not be a part of biology?

Suzan Mazur: What about self-assembly?

Robert Hazen: Self-assembly is the same thing. Semantically self-organization and self-assembly are the same — how big is the module? Self-assembly: does that refer to a bigger piece than self-organization – I don’t know. To me they’re pretty much synonymous terms.

Suzan Mazur: Some people see a distinction.

Robert Hazen: Maybe they’re just doing it on scale. You can talk about the self-assembly of magnets. . . .

Suzan Mazur: Right and as Lima-de-Faria points out if you take a Hydra – a living organism and push it through a sieve, it will reassemble.

Robert Hazen: The same thing is true of a Golgi apparatus. It’s the same set of principles. It’s still physical and chemical interactions at the local scale – whether it’s a piece of magnet or piece of the Hydra or piece of the Golgi apparatus or lipid molecule.

Suzan Mazur: Not enough of this literature has been around in the media. People don’t understand, even the biologists don’t understand what self-organization is. There’s also been an attempt to block the literature like by Eugenie Scott’s National Center for Science Education. She’s told me they don’t support self-organization literature because people confuse it with Intelligent Design.

Robert Hazen: I saw an article just last week in Science or Nature about self-organization.

Suzan Mazur: That might have been the subscriber-only Science magazine article rereporting what I’ve covered over the last several months about Altenberg, but getting it wrong. You don’t see self-organization being talked about in the popular media. . .

Robert Hazen: Well you’re the kind of person who could really build bridges here. And I realize it makes good press to point out where scientists have fundamental disagreements, but so often — as you say — it’s just a matter of communication. I don’t know any scientist who argues against the importance of local, chemical, physical interaction. Whether it be at the level of the atom, the molecule, the cell. Those local interactions lead to what I refer to as self-assembly or self-organization.

I’ve seen it talked about because I’m very much into the “synthetics biology” community where there has to be self-organization. You don’t basically take molecules and put them together piece by piece with glue. You have to put them in a test tube and let them make the cell for you.

And that’s what Jack Szostak (at Harvard) sees and that’s what Dave Deamer (at University of California, Santa Cruz) sees and you can go down the list of the people who are doing this very basic synthetic biology work. Self-organization works.

Now I’m not saying that’s replicating the origin of life on Earth. But if we’re going to make synthetic life in the laboratory in the next 10 years, it’s going to be done through self-organization.

Suzan Mazur: Well thank you for sharing all of this with me.

Robert Hazen: The kinds of things you’re reporting on, you’re reaching a wider audience. It is important in writing to highlight where there may be controversies or disagreements because that is what’s most exciting, that’s what moves science.

Suzan Mazur: Evolution can’t just be an American perspective, can it? What do we hear from the Japanese, for instance, about evolution? There was a group of structuralists for a while in the 1980s called the Osaka Group. Molecular biologist Atuhiro Sibatani, Kiyohiko Ikeda, Pegio-Yukio Gunji. Not all of the group were Japanese, however, I-SIS’s Mae-Wan Ho participated, Brian Goodwin, Gerry Webster, Antonio Lima-de-Faria, Giuseppe Sermonti, Dave Lambert, Leendert Van Der Hammen, Vladimir Voeikov and others were a part of it.

Robert Hazen: I hate boundaries. I hate disciplinary boundaries. Talking about physics versus chemistry. I don’t see a distinction. I hate international boundaries. I hate when people set up walls.

We’ve got to draw the circle wider. Even the idea of a professional scientist versus a knowledgeable reader. There’s a continuum here. And we’re all part of this search for trying to understand where we come from and who we are.

Suzan Mazur: Thanks so much for sounding the trumpet!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suzan Mazur’s interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur’s reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs.

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