August 2013



Did life come from Mars? Chemistry is in the news this week, with Steven Benner’s announcement that the science points to life beginning on Mars. Of the reports I’ve read, only the Smithsonian seems to have spoken to Benner, the rest seem to come straight out of the press release.

To give the executive summary: when organic compounds are given energy (such as from the Sun or geothermal sources), they can decompose into a gloopy mess that Benner calls tar. These organic compounds can be stabilised by addition of boron, and the newly stable compounds can be catalysed into more complex structures (including ribose) by molybdenum. Simple enough chemistry and nothing new, so where do the Martians come in?

If you read the abstract for the talk, which is at a geochemical conference, (the Goldschmidt conference in Florence), it becomes a bit more clear. The discussion surrounds mineralogy and early planetary environments. Essentially, what was the Earth like billions of years ago, and could that have supported the reactions that led to life? Herein lies the rub – Earth was anoxic and very, very wet at the time the chemistry of life is thought to have formed. All that water would keep the soluble boron too dispersed to stabilise the organics, and molybdenum wouldn’t have existed in the right oxidation state to catalyse the required reactions.

So what about our near neighbours? Benner argues that the Martian climate at the time would create ideal conditions to form carbohydrates, including the vitally important RNA. (more…)

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Guest post by Chemistry World intern Dan Johnson

It has often been said of Franz Schubert, the great Austrian composer, that if the mark of a genius is an early death, then he can be considered a greater genius than Mozart. Mozart died at 35; Schubert at 31. But perhaps we should cast the net wider than music. On this scale of genius cut short, the death of Henry Moseley on 10 August 1915, at the age of only 27, might make his life the most fleetingly brilliant of all. His death is all the more poignant for what he might have achieved. In a few short years he laid out the basis for the modern periodic table, predicted the elements that would fill in the gaps and showed that x-rays could be a supreme analytical tool. Few achieve in a lifetime of research what he achieved in a career of just 40 months.

Henry Moseley in his lab

Henry Moseley in his lab

Moseley, known as Harry to his family, came from strong scientific stock. His father, Henry Nottidge Moseley, was a naturalist and professor at Oxford who journeyed on the Challenger expedition; his grandfather was a conchologist and fellow of the Royal Society. As a child it  seemed that he would follow his father –Harry and his sister scoured the surrounding countryside, cataloguing as much of the native flora and fauna as they could find. (more…)

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This time last year, millions of us watched live (online and late at night, in my case) as a portable science lab the size of a family car landed on the surface of Mars.  Now Curiosity, the Mars science laboratory, is celebrating its first birthday and a year of successful science.

A self-portrait composite image of Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A self-portrait composite image of Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

I hope that the event of the landing itself will go down in scientific history. Although not as iconic as the Moon landing, Curiosity’s touchdown was extremely ambitious – Nasa’s engineers devised a controlled descent system that involved lowering the rover from a rocket powered ‘sky crane’, so that it could be placed with its wheels on the ground, ready to rove. The entire process took just a few minutes, now dubbed the ‘7 minutes of terror’. Watch a video of the event and you’ll see that this isn’t a bad description – there’s more tension packed into those 420 seconds than in any feature-length Hollywood thriller. (more…)

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