- National Geographic News: “Building Blocks of Life Detected in Distant Galaxy”
The actual discovery was of methanimine, which “can form the simplest amino acid, glycine, when it reacts with either hydrogen cyanide and then water, or formic acid,” according to National Geographic News. Evidence of hydrogen cyanide has also been found in the galaxy, along with “possibly” evidence of formic acid.
The chemicals are in distant galaxy Arp 220, believed to have undergone a “recent merger” and thus is thought to be home to a star nursery. The team thinks conditions now are too violent to let life flourish even with the (possible) existence of an amino acid, but speculates that once the violence dies down, life could bloom.
Once the violence dies down, life could bloom.
“The fact that we can observe these substances at such a vast distance means that there are huge amounts of them in Arp 220,” said former Arecibo astronomer Emmanuel Momjian. Methanimine has been detected in our galaxy and “tentatively” in nearby galaxy NGC 253, but in no others so far.
However, glycine, the amino acid methanimine can help create, has not been found in the galaxy, despite its “telltale chemistry.”
Unsurprisingly, the astronomers who made the discovery are quite exuberant over the find, despite the fact that it ultimately reminds us of the lack of evidence we actually do have for life’s supposed abiotic origins and how huge the gaps really are.
First of all, it’s important to remember that the astronomers aren’t able to extend a robotic arm to Arp 220—which is 250 million light-years away (that’s 1.5 x 1021 miles or 2.4 x 1021 kilometers!)—and retrieve an actual sample of the “stuff” in this huge galaxy; rather, the analysis is from the “spectral line” resulting from the absorption and emission of various compounds in the galaxy as the radio telescope examines it.
Second of all, finding this precursor to the simplest amino acid is like finding a hunk of aluminum ore in a garage and expecting it to refine and shape itself into a car! The obstacles for an abiotic origin of life are not limited to simply having the right chemicals lying around (which, we emphasize, is not even what has been found in Arp 220!).
Regardless, it’s no surprise that—for those who believe we must have evolved from primordial slime—the “sight” of any proto-organic substances in a distant galaxy inspire hopes for more research. Sadly, it seems they find just enough to “string them along” with the belief that life’s origin was as simple as the chance occurrence of the right chemicals in the right place at the right time.
The research has been submitted for publication in Astrophysical Journal.
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