Something From Nothing

Science, as a discipline, is driven by the desire to understand everything. The immensity of such a project necessitates that science be undertaken not by one group of men and women in one time, but all men and women for all time. However, the final goal always eludes us: to understand this, we must first understand this, but to understand that, we must understand this, ad infinitum. In fact, the very notion of there being a final point in science has become so abstract as to be almost irrelevant; the more we know, the more we know that we do not know, and the end of the game is nowhere to be seen. And, perhaps, there is no end to the game.

Still, we seek out answers to questions. What is the Universe made of, and how did it come to exist? What is the difference between life and death? Where and how did life emerge? The bottom line: how can something come from nothing?

I think, ultimately, that “something from nothing” is the driving force behind most, if not all, human pursuits: art, reproduction, creation mythology, even the American Dream. It’s also the question behind the famous Miller-Urey experiments at the University of Chicago in 1953.

The Miller-Urey experiment is Frankenstein to the max: Stanley Miller and Harold Urey filled glass vials with materials present in primordial soup days — water, methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide — and then they shot sparks at the whole set-up continuously for a week. By the end of the week, the vials were full of a brown sludge rich in amino acids, which are, of course, the building blocks of life. Check out the video above (an excerpt from the phenomenal Cosmos series) to see the experiment in action. It has become something of a classic, albeit dated, experiment simulating one possibility of the origins of life on Earth — the possibility that life, as Charles Darwin wrote, originated from a “warm little pond.”

A recent re-evaluation of the work after Stanley Miller’s death has found handfuls of new amino acids in the now-dried, vialed, boxed-up remnants of the experiments; 22 amino acids, 10 of which had never before been identified. The experiment, which had lost relevance after the discovery of amino acids in meteorites suggested, exotically, that life might have come from elsewhere, has suddenly become relevant again.

There’s something wonderfully alchemical about it; from nothing, something. From metal, gold. From slime, life. And still, after over 50 years, new ingredients for the potion.


  1. #1 JaclynJean
    November 16, 2008

    last night i took Cosmos over to Leeland’s house (the 5 year-old I nanny for) and he was so into it. we watched bits of a lot of the episodes and at one point i paused it and asked him, sort of just for kicks, “do you know what infinity is?” and he said to me very seriously, “um, yeah, it’s like, nothing finishes. ever.” five years old. i had tears in my eyes.