The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup

The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup

The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup

The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup


Where did we come from? Did life arise on earth or on some other planet? What did the earliest primitive organisms look like? Untangling a century of contentious debate, the authors explore current theories of the source of life -- from Martian meteors to hydrothermal vents -- and then present their own elegant scenario: Life arose not in the subterranean depths, as many believe, but on Earth's tumultuous surface, where a primitive form of natural selection spawned the first genetic material, perhaps in the form of a proto-virus. Knowing exactly how life began on Earth will not only teach us more about ourselves, it will bring us closer to finding life elsewhere.


There is a peninsula in southern Sweden that extends into the Baltic and is surrounded by an archipelago of beautiful wooded islets. On it looms an immense dinosaur. This dinosaur is not like the ones in Jurassic Park. Rather it is a soon-to-be extinct nuclear power plant that provides more than 10 percent of Sweden's power. The plant, along with Sweden's eleven other nuclear power plants, is scheduled to be shut down permanently by the year 2010, a deadline demanded by a referendum that the Swedes voted into law in 1980. But where to put the toxic radioactive waste that these plants have generated?

This problem has inspired a huge underground experimental installation at nearby Äspö. There, a gently sloping tunnel three kilometers long has been bored into the hard Swedish granite, gradually dropping down to a depth of five hundred meters. At the bottom of this tunnel, in a series of caverns and boreholes, measurements are being made to determine how quickly water can trickle down from the surface to this depth. These and other measurements will help to establish the rate at which the huge copper cylinders that are designed to encase the radioactive waste will corrode away.

The cylinders must survive for at least a hundred thousand years. Free oxygen is likely to accelerate the corrosion process. Yet the excavators have found, to their surprise, that when they inject oxygen into the rock, the gas rapidly disappears or is converted to carbon dioxide. It seems that bacteria are at work here, far below the surface.

Periodically, the excavators break through into one of a number of mazes of underground water channels. And when they do, Karsten Pedersen of the University of Goteborg is on hand, ready to sample the . . .

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