Meteorites Splashing Into 'Warm Little Ponds' May Have Sparked Life on Earth

 K. D. Pearce
K. D. Pearce

A new study argues that meteorites that landed in volcanic pools of water 4 billion years ago were key to jump-starting life on Earth—a theory proposed by Charles Darwin more than 140 years ago. New analysis from McMaster University in Canada and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy suggests that meteorites that landed in shallow, stagnant pools of water (or "warm little ponds") on Earth brought the organic materials necessary to create life billions of years ago.

The research, published in the journal PNAS, is based on comprehensive modeling of astronomic, geological, chemical, and biological conditions on Earth as early as 4.5 billion years ago, looking at how RNA could have been formed in dry, intermediate, and wet conditions.

The "warm little pond" hypothesis—a phrase taken from a 1871 letter Darwin wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker—has been studied in labs since the 1950s, when University of Chicago researchers formed amino acids by introducing electric shocks into a flask of water and gases (meant to simulate early Earth's atmosphere).

The hypothesis isn't universally accepted; another candidate for life on Earth could be found in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. But some previous studies have supported the warm little pond hypothesis. Still, "no one's actually run the calculation before," lead author Ben Pearce said in a statement. "It's pretty exciting."

The idea is that meteorites that landed in these "warm little ponds" delivered protein building blocks called nucleobases that were necessary to first form RNA, one of the essential building blocks for all known life. Warm little ponds may have created just the right conditions for this to happen. They have wet and dry cycles, which have been shown to boost the process of nucleotides forming chains of RNA. The ponds would periodically dry out, leaving behind a high concentration of minerals, then fill back up again, leading to longer and longer polymers. These long strands of RNA would later begin to self-replicate—the first life on Earth.

The study concludes that based on these models, RNA polymers would have shown up early in Earth's history, some time before 4.17 billion years ago—only a few hundred million years after liquid water first formed on the planet's surface.

The results shouldn't be considered foolproof just yet. This study is based on mathematical models, which aren't quite enough to prove the hypothesis. "Now it's the experimentalists' turn to find out how life could indeed have emerged under these very specific early conditions," co-author Dmitry Semenov said in the statement.

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

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