In the essay I wrote about my brother's passing, I mentioned that the discovery made by three UW scientists—Roy Black (a biochemist), Sarah Keller (a UW professor of chemistry), and Caitlin Cornell (a UW doctoral student)—added an important piece of evidence to the hypothesis that life originated on earth by self-assembling processes. No miracles, no nothing that's not really here. Just time, space, matter, and chemistry. The scientists determined how the membrane of an abiotic cell composed of fatty acids can come together by itself and, more importantly for the story of life, become resilient.
This was always the big question mark in the origins field. The cells of living things are pretty together. But those of pre-living ones, and the ones many considered to be the prototypes of living cells, could not withstand two significant stresses: the presence of salt or magnesium. Black, Keller, and Cornell found that amino acids (the stuff of proteins) that were embedded in the membranes gave pre-biotic cells the needed stabilizing reinforcement. What this finding provides is an important part of the chain that links non-living cells to living ones.
But my interest in the chemistry of membrane formation, as I wrote in my piece on my brother, is that it further materializes life. It squeezes more otherworldly drops of soul out of the stuff of bios. The view of life that is close to the truth must be this: it's not any more special than a rock, a cloud, or the color blue. What this truth is, is that no break can be found between dreams, feelings, leaves, a pond, and a star—all and all else are weaved into being present by the physical properties of chemicals. If there is God, then there is no way it can be anything but just ordinary, plain, banal. It's not: What if God was one of us? It's God has no other choice than to be one of us, as we have no choice than to be one of the many living things that are on this planet, and in turn, living things can only be a part of the universe's things. God can only be secular. And there is more.
Sabine Hossenfelder's 2018 book about the state of fundamental physics today, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, contains many interesting ideas and insights. One concerns what's called the anthropic principle. She, as with many other physicists, has a big problem with the concept. This principle claims that the parameters of life are real because we, humans (the one and only "anthro"), are here. But how did we get here? The answer for that is found in parameters or values that structure this universe's possibilities and limits.
For example, the famous British cosmologist Martin Rees, a leading proponent of the anthropic principle, offers just six numbers that "shape the universe." Each number represents a value that's fundamental to the kind of physical reality in which we find ourselves and are made of. The value of gravity, the value that results in the expansion of the universe, the value of the forces in the depths of reality—change these and others, and we will have another universe that's not at all like our own. This is the essence of Rees' 1999 book, Just Six Numbers. If there is to be a universe, and it contains life, it must be like our own.
The anthropic view must lead to the conjecture (not hypothesis, and by no means theory) that there isn't just one universe. There have to be others with other values that sometimes result in stillborn worlds, worlds without stars, or with stars that burn too quickly. Hossenfelder will have nothing to do with multi-universes. For her, and she is right about this, multiverse conjectures are not science but metaphysics (she uses the word religion). But to discredit or weaken the force of the conjecture that emerges from the anthropic view, Hossenfelder uses a move that can only work if we imagine (conjecture) other universes.
Though we cannot presently scan the whole parameter space to find out which combinations might be supportive for life, we can do a little better than one and try at least a few. This has been done and thus we know that the claim that there is really only one combination of parameters that will create a universe hospitable to life is on very shaky ground.
The shaking of this ground is caused by, one, a 2006 paper titled “A Universe Without Weak Interactions” by Roni Harnik, Graham Kribs, and Gilad Perez; two, a 2013 paper, "The Habitable Epoch of the Early Universe," by Abraham Loeb; and, three, a 2016 paper, "Stellar Helium Burning in Other Universes: A solution to the triple alpha fine-tuning problem," by Fred C. Adams, Evan Grohs. The first paper theorized a universe that is very different from ours and yet has the potential for life. The next paper argues that "the chemistry of life" was present when the universe "was merely 10-17 million years old." The last paper claims that there are other cosmic values that would actually make it easier for stars to manufacture the heavy elements that make life possible.
Hossenfelder concludes that these "three examples show that a chemistry complex enough to support life can arise under circumstances that are not anything like the ones we experience, and our universe isn't all that special." Indeed, if any scientific theory has something special in it, we can suspect that it has yet to be fully or maturely scientific and still has some of that old-time human aura feeling. Think only of DNA. For many years, there has been evidence of the existence of this molecule and its many functions. But to this day, it is still considered to be pretty special. It's as if the four bases (cytosine [C], guanine [G], adenine [A] or thymine [T]) were Platonic forms, the almighty one that makes the imperfect copies of the many. But the revolution in synthetic DNA will eventually empty the so-called "molecule of life" of that otherwordly feeling.
But how did life start on earth? I believe the most plausible scenario requires connecting the ideas of two major origin of life thinkers. One is David Deamer, an astrobiologist, and the other is Roy Black, the biochemist at the University of Washington.
In his difficult but still brilliant new book, Assembling Life: How Can Life Begin on Earth and Other Habitable Planets?, Deamer describes the conditions needed to get life started; and in Black's very readable and thought-provoking paper, "A Self-Assembled Aggregate Composed of a Fatty Acid Membrane and the Building Blocks of Biological Polymers Provides a First Step in the Emergence of Protocells," he describes the transition from the materials and conditions to a prebiotic cell. (Black's paper was co-written with Matthew Blosser.)
Deamer locates the origin of life in freshwater systems that are "undergoing cycles evaporation and dehydration." This wet-dry cycle is crucial because when dry, organic compounds are concentrated on a mineral surface, and when wet, they become diluted. The rhythm (something like the first heartbeat, or dance) increases, in a given location, the population of reactants and the potential for the formation of the major monomers of life. This process is connected with the cosmic in several ways. One is the organic compounds in the dancing pools—which Deamer locates on volcanic landmasses "that resemble Hawaii or Iceland"—were delivered by meteorites and asteroidal dust (interplanetary dust particles) that rained on earth.
As for Black, his key idea is not so much that membranes can self-assemble with the help of wall-stabilizing amino acids. He goes much further than that. The components of life's machinery and memory (proteins and RNA) evolved not outside cell, neither just by bouncing about inside the cell (as Freeman Dyson has proposed), but structurally from the membrane itself. The first hard evidence of this is the amino acid in the fatty walls; but it also contains other molecules—nucleobases and sugars. And so, in the way mineral surfaces in Deamer's dry-wet dance localized and concentrated materials on the outside, Black's cell wall also localized (selected and concentrated) prebiotic components in the inside. Indeed, the paper that announced the discovery the stabilizing function of amino acids to the world, "Prebiotic amino acids bind to and stabilize fatty acid membranes" ends by describing the finding complements Deamer's wet-dry cycle hypothesis. From the external, to the internal, to localization led to life very naturally. Nothing special going on here.
A quick sidenote: I recommend reading Deamer's books and listening to Brain Eno's New Space Music at the same time.