It was a kind relative who set me on a scientific path by giving me a chemistry set when I was about 12 years old. I soon set up a laboratory in the coal-shed at the back of our house just outside Strabane in County Tyrone. Over the next few years I precipitated beautiful crystals of copper sulphate, I made horrible smells with hydrogen sulphide, I produced hydrogen gas and lit it and lived to tell the tale – it makes a satisfying pop.
At one stage I decided to replicate Andrews Liver Salts. The list of ingredients was on the tin so I reckoned it couldn’t be that difficult to reproduce it. I sent off for the required chemicals by mail order, mixed them in the shed, drank it and lived to tell that tale too. I only told it to my parents when it was all over. But by that time I was hooked and ended up in Trinity College to study microbiology and later genetics in NUIGalway.
Although my professional gaze was into microscopes my pastime gaze was into telescopes – another inheritance from childhood. My wife and I even rigged up a telescope to project the image of the sun (rare enough in Galway) on to wall of our bedroom so we could observe the rotation of sunspots.
In all my reading of both microbiology and astronomy I found one thing in common – the scientists who knew what they were talking about said that the odds against our being here in this intricately designed universe are enormous.
Take, for example, the solar eclipse on the 21st of last month (– now there’s something I would have liked to have seen). An eclipse can only happen if the size of the sun in our sky is precisely the same as the size of the moon. And it is! What’s the likelihood of that? Tiny. The explanation – there is none. The special website set up by NASA for last month’s website simply says, “Eclipses occur due to the special coincidence of the moon and the sun being the same angular size.”
And the popular press has decided, all on their own, that despite such enormous odds simple cells somehow came together in the sea after the earth’s crust hardened. It was a doddle. And once that simple cell was formed there was no stopping the progress of life as we know it. My wife’s hairdresser certainly thinks so. When she heard that I was going to give a talk about the rarity of life and she said, “I thought all you needed on a planet was water and then life would grow”
The past 50 years of research have shown that it wasn’t a doddle, the cells couldn’t have come together by blind fate and they aren’t simple either.
Sir Fred Hoyle, Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, calculated the odds against getting just the enzymes we need for life. He said:
“the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only one part in 1040,000, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup”.
1040,000 is one with 40,000 noughts after it – note that this morning Paddy Power was giving the chance that Gerry Adams would be the next Taoiseach as just one part in 100.
Professor David Block from Johannesburg puts it this way:
“even if every star in the heavens sported a planet on which life might form, still there would not be enough stars to make intelligent life a likely outcome.”
Allow yourself to think for a minute of the implications if these scientists are right. What if we didn’t get here by chance? What’s the first thought that jumps into your head?
(From “Blind Fate” at Leadership Breakfast RDS Dublin 7:30am 26th September 2017)