The Genesis Quest
The Geniuses and Madmen Who Tried to Uncover the Origin of Life on Earth
For almost a century, a small band of eccentric scientists has struggled to explain one of the greatest mysteries of all: how and why life began.
Some have argued that life began in the chemical-rich seas of the early Earth: the famous 'primordial soup'. Others claim the first organism was a simple molecule that could make copies of itself. Others still are convinced that life began in strange vents pumping hot water out of the sea floor, where the chemical reactions that sustain living cells could get started. Or perhaps life began in volcanic ponds on land, or in meteorite impact zones – or even in beds of clay. Each idea has attracted fervent believers who promote it with an almost religious fervour.
But the quest to unravel life’s genesis is not just a story of big ideas: it is fundamentally a compelling human story, rich in personalites, conflicts, and surprising twists and turns. Each idea has attracted hardcore believers who promote it with an almost religious fervour, be they the committed Stalinist who worked in the heart of the Soviet Union in the 1920s; the British biologist who could blow smoke out of his ears after rupturing his eardrum in a decompression chamber; the Scottish artist turned chemist; a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and his obsessed graduate student; the German patent lawyer; or the biochemist so enthusiastic that his childhood experiments nearly blew up his parents’ basement.
Along the way the story takes in some of the greatest discoveries in modern biology, from evolution and cells to DNA and life's family tree. It’s also a story whose end may finally be in sight. For the latest research suggests that life sprung forth fully formed: that is, a mix of lifeless chemicals, under the right conditions, assembled themselves almost instantaneously into a crude but functional living cell.
By presenting this radical ‘Goldilocks chemistry’ as the culmination of a century-long intellectual adventure,The Genesis Questshows how the quest to understand life’s beginning is also a quest to discover the true nature of life, and by extension our place in the Universe.