Pharyngula

Lots of people have been sending me this paper by Erik Andrulis, and most of you have done so with eyebrows raised, pointing out that it’s bizarre and unbelievable; some of you wrote asking whether it was believable, at which point my eyebrows went up. Come on people: when you see one grand cosmic explanation that is summarized with cartoons, which the author claims explains everything from the behavior of subatomic particles to the formation of the moon, shouldn’t you immediately sense crankery?

It’s also getting cited all over the place, from World of Warcraft fan sites to the Discovery Institute (those two have roughly equal credibility in matters of science), so I had to skim through it. I read it with rising concern: Erik Andrulis is a young assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University, and he’s published entirely sensible papers on RNA processing. This paper is so weird and out there that it is either an attempt to Sokal the field of origins of life research, or the man is seriously mentally ill. Either way, this is not going to help his career in the slightest.

The paper is titled Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life, and just the sweeping grandiosity of that title should set off alarm bells. Here is the abstract:

Life is an inordinately complex unsolved puzzle. Despite significant theoretical progress, experimental anomalies, paradoxes, and enigmas have revealed paradigmatic limitations. Thus, the advancement of scientific understanding requires new models that resolve fundamental problems. Here, I present a theoretical framework that economically fits evidence accumulated from examinations of life. This theory is based upon a straightforward and non-mathematical core model and proposes unique yet empirically consistent explanations for major phenomena including, but not limited to, quantum gravity, phase transitions of water, why living systems are predominantly CHNOPS (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur), homochirality of sugars and amino acids, homeoviscous adaptation, triplet code, and DNA mutations. The theoretical framework unifies the macrocosmic and microcosmic realms, validates predicted laws of nature, and solves the puzzle of the origin and evolution of cellular life in the universe.

Having skimmed through all 105 pages of this thing, I can tell you with confidence that it answers none of those questions. Just the fact that it is entirely non-mathematical and non-empirical (there aren’t any observations or experiments described at all), and that the entirety of the theory is built around diagrams sketched out by the author, should also tell you that this is not a useful or predictive theory.

It does not have an auspicious beginning. In addition to being constructed around cartoons and being a non-mathematical Theory of Everything, it has to introduce an elaborate collection of neologisms that make the whole paper painful to read.

In the theory proposed herein, I use the heterodox yet simple gyre–a spiral, vortex, whorl, or similar circular pattern–as a core model for understanding life. Because many elements of the gyre model (gyromodel) are alien, I introduce neologisms and important terms in bold italics to identify them; a theoretical lexicon is presented in Table 1. The central idea of this theory is that all physical reality, stretching from the so-called inanimate into the animate realm and from micro- to meso- to macrocosmic scales, can be interpreted and modeled as manifestations of a single geometric entity, the gyre. This entity is attractive because it has life-like characteristics, undergoes morphogenesis, and is responsive to environmental conditions. The gyromodel depicts the spatiotemporal behavior and properties of elementary particles, celestial bodies, atoms, chemicals, molecules, and systems as quantized packets of information, energy, and/or matter that oscillate between excited and ground states around a singularity. The singularity, in turn, modulates these states by alternating attractive and repulsive forces. The singularity itself is modeled as a gyre, thus evincing a thermodynamic, fractal, and nested organization of the gyromodel. In fitting the scientific evidence from quantum gravity to cell division, this theory arrives at an understanding of life that questions traditional beliefs and definitions.

Here’s a partial copy of his lexicon. It goes on quite a bit longer than what I’ve copied here.

Table 1. Gyromodel Lexicon

Alternagyre A gyrosystem whose gyrapex is not triquantal
Dextragyre A right-handed gyre or gyromodel
Focagyre A gyre that is the focal point of analysis or discussion
Gyradaptor The gyre singularity–a quantum–that exerts all forces on the gyrosystem
Gyrapex The relativistically high potential, excited, unstable, learning state of a particle
Gyraxiom A fact, condition, principle, or rule that constrains and defines the theoretical framework

Gyre The spacetime shape or path of a particle or group of particles; a quantum
Gyrequation Shorthand notation for analysis, discussion, and understanding gyromodels
Gyrobase The relativistically low potential, ground, stable, memory state of a particle
Gyrognosis The thermodynamically demanding process of learning and integrating IEM
Gyrolink The mIEM particle that links two gyromodules in a gyronexus
Gyromnemesis The thermodynamically conserving process of remembering and recovering IEM
Gyromodel The core model undergirding the theoretical framework
Gyromodule A dIEM particle in a gyronexus
Gyronexus A polymer of dIEM particles linked by mIEM particles
Gyrostate The potential and/or kinetic state that a particle occupies in its gyratory path
Gyrosystem A gyromodel with specific IEM composition, organization, and purpose
IEM Information, energy, and/or matter

I can’t help myself. You knew this was coming.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Now I know that you are in lexical shock right now, but I’m about to make it worse. Witness the use of these terms in figure 1 of the paper, which will also reveal the kinds of diagrams he’s using.

i-2a0fdf75887e10417ea6d82d04949ce8-gyrefig-thumb-400x570-72227.jpeg

“The levorafocagyre, in turn, is antichiral to the dextrasupragyre” is a nice sentence that about sums up the experience of reading this thing. Don’t believe me? Here are more excerpts that illustrate the grand, cosmic, and entirely uninformative nature of gyroexplanatory gyrobabble. Andrulis purports to explain everything from learning and memory (learning and memory by gyres, not the poor people trying to understand his paper):

The ultimate state of gyromnemesis is the stably adapted particle or gyronexus in the gyrobase. A particle thus adapts through learning and memory by completing one full cycle–a revolution– around the singularity. Taken together, gyrognosis defines IEM integration and assessment whereas gyromnemesis defines IEM storage and recovery. Finally, although a diquantal IEM (X”) undergoes gyrognosis as the gyrobase of a primary majorgyre, it undergoes gyromnemesis as the gyrapex of an alternagyre. Thus, gyre learning and memory are relative to the gyradaptive singularity.

To the formation of Earth’s moon:

Lunar Formation. The favored hypothesis for the formation of Earth’s Moon is from planetesimal impact on a proto-Earth proceeded by matter ejection, accretion, and gravitational capture [189,190]. However, the question of lunar origin has not been settled since there are competing, albeit antiquated hypotheses [191,192]. I also discovered the stunning admission that, “…shamefacedly, [astronomers] have little idea as to where [the Moon] came from. This is particularly embarrassing… [193].” The oxygyre models the Moon as a macroxyon that has a macroelectron within itself; this simple gyrosystem accounts for the known chemical composition of the Moon surface, oxides [194]. Regarding lunar origin, the macroxyon that is the Moon emerges from the macroelectron that is the Earth, concomitant with the emergence of Earth’s macroxyon [195,196].

Several additional points can be derived from this gyrosystem. First, the oxygyre explains water on and in the Moon [197-199]. Second, the gyrating effects of the macroxygyre model the rotation of the Moon on its axis. Third, the path of a less exergic macroxyon (Moon) around more exergic one (Earth) follows an ohiogyre path, or lunar orbit. Fourth, this oxygyre provides insight into how tidal cycling is linked to lunar orbit and axial rotation [200] since the Earth’s oceans (macroxymatrix) and Moon itself (a macroxyon) exert complementary attractorepulsive forces. Fifth, this theoretical union also helps clarify short-term chronobiological ([201]; see 3.8) and long-term geophysical [202] relationships. Sixth, the craters that cover planetary, lunar, and satellite surfaces [203-205]–most if not all of which are near-perfect circles–bear the signature of the macroelectron singularity and its strong thermodynamic force on the oxygyre [206].

You know what? That doesn’t explain anything!

While the strange terminology and nonsensical claims could be clues that this is an elaborate Poe of some sort, the story I’ve heard from some other sources is that Andrulis is not getting tenure and will be leaving Case next year, and that he seems to have a history of tuning in and out — so what this most like is is a developing personal tragedy. I hope he gets the care he clearly needs; his other work suggests that this is an intelligent mind that is currently going off the rails.

Setting Andrulis aside, though, there are other problems here. How did this paper get published? It’s terrible: unreadable, incoherent, bizarre, and completely lacking in evidence or mathematical support. This is from the very first issue of a new journal, Life, which also contains a perfectly reasonable general summary of origins of life research by Stuart Kauffman alongside Andrulis’s ghastly dreck. There seems to be a complete lack of editorial discrimination at the journal; this is not the way to build a reputation. Or rather, it is, but not a desirable one.

And then there is Science Daily, which seems to be the source where most of my correspondents found this paper. Science Daily is an incredibly annoying source: all they do is republish, without any kind of intelligent assessment, press releases. They suck. What good is mindless regurgitation?

And finally, there’s Case Western Reserve University, which must bear a share of the blame. Where did the press release come from? Why, from the Media Relations office at CWRU. Somebody wrote the press release that begins like this:

The earth is alive, asserts a revolutionary scientific theory of life emerging from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. The trans-disciplinary theory demonstrates that purportedly inanimate, non-living objects–for example, planets, water, proteins, and DNA–are animate, that is, alive. With its broad explanatory power, applicable to all areas of science and medicine, this novel paradigm aims to catalyze a veritable renaissance.

It’s madness stamped with the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine seal of approval. If Andrulis did Sokal the journal, he also Sokal’ed the institution that employs him. Who wrote that bullshit? Do they have anyone competent review their press releases before they mail them out to the whole wide world? Was there anyone thinking in all the steps from crank professor to PR department to journal editor to reviewers? There were so many points where this crackpottery should have been detected and rejected, and it didn’t happen.

(Also on FtB)