Are origin-of-life seekers really trying to understand life, or are they seeking fame and prizes?

Two guys from University College London sure got a lot of recognition when they boasted, “How we discovered the world’s oldest fossils” (The Conversation). Matthew Dodd and Dominic Papineau were scrounging for rocks in northeast Canada and found some stripey ones they thought might have markings that possibly were made by early organisms. Never mind that the markings are made of hematite (iron) and silicon—two unlikely minerals for life—and that the alleged “microfossils” are half a millimeter long and half the width of a human hair; never mind that similar markings might be found in rocks of your back yard of along a road cut in Alabama; if you can find something very old that might have been alive, you win 15 minutes of fame. Look how the world responded:

  • 4 billion year-old fossils found in Canadian quartz: These fossilized microorganisms could be the oldest record of life we have (Engadget).
  • Traces in rock may be the oldest evidence of life on Earth ever (New Scientist).
  • World’s oldest fossils unearthed (Science Daily).
  • Earliest evidence of life on Earth ‘found’ (BBC News). Reporter Pallab Ghosh, faithful Darwin disciple at the British news service, got some juicy quotes out of Matt Dodd to make this one of the most significant discoveries in the history of the universe:

“This discovery answers the biggest questions mankind has asked itself — which are: where do we come from and why we are here?

“It is very humbling to have the oldest known lifeforms in your hands and being able to look at them and analyse them,” he told BBC News.

Humility, that is, as in Look at us! We won a world record! And look at all the media hits on their publicity page: “Matthew Dodd and Dr Dominic Papineau (UCL Earth Sciences and the London Centre for Nanotechnology) led a team that discovered remains of microorganisms at least 3,770 million years old, providing direct evidence of one of the oldest life forms on Earth.

 

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