The Origins of Life and the Universe

The Origins of Life and the Universe

The Origins of Life and the Universe

The Origins of Life and the Universe

Excerpt

Step 1: “To be is to do”—Socrates
Step 2: “To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre
Step 3: “Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra
—COMPILED BY KURT VONNEGUT JR.

My fascination with the origins of life dates back to my undergraduate years as a chemistry major at the University of Brussels, Belgium, in the early 1960s. The city of Brussels had at that time a large bookstore that specialized in the sale of books from the Soviet Union. Possibly for propaganda purposes, the books sold there were very inexpensive (always an attractive feature for college students) and included titles from famous scientists like the biologist A. Oparin and the astronomer I. Shklovskii. I bought for a mere pittance, in French translation, Oparin's “L'origine et révolution de la vie” (The origin and evolution of life) and Shklovskii's “Univers, vie, raison” (Universe, life, reason) ($1.10, hardbound). Reading these books, I became convinced of two things: first, questions relating to the origin of life and the cosmos itself were not silly, and second, physics and chemistry, possibly more than biology, held clues to the answers to these questions.

Like all chemistry students, I took the mandatory courses in statistical thermodynamics and quantum mechanics (the latter from the 1977 Nobel laureate for chemistry, Ilya Prigogine) as well as an elective course in nuclear physics. The subject matter of these courses was a lot more sophisticated than what we . . .

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