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An origin-al: Stanley Miller

Stanley Miller

In On the Origin of Life on Earth, the first of our monthly Origins essays, Carl Zimmer briefly notes Stanley Miller’s “iconic” 1953 spark-discharge experiment indicating that amino acids could be created in what was then thought to have been the gases in our planet’s early atmosphere. Indeed, countless researchers credit Miller for fathering the modern experimental study of life’s origins. And Carl Sagan, who as an undergraduate student attended the Chicago lecture where Miller first presented his work, once noted that “the Miller-Urey experiment is now recognized as the single most significant step in convincing many scientists that life is likely to be abundant in the cosmos.”

It’s not surprising then that the International Society for the Study of the Origins of Life, whose meeting Miller regularly attended till his death in 2007, in 2003 established a Web site honoring the 50th anniversary of this pivotal experiment. It includes an interview with the man himself, reflections on his career by current origin-of-life researchers Jeffrey Bada, Miller’s second graduate student, and Antonio Lazcano, and photographs and videos of the celebrated experiment. (Science published its own anniversary tribute by Bada and Lazcano, and the pair wrote more extended reflections on Miller after his death.)

Bada and Lazcano provide this account of the 1953 lecture by Miller:

After the lecture [the audience] sat in silence, unable to find any flaws in what Stanley had done. At one point, someone – according to Arnold, Enrico Fermi – politely asked if it was known whether this kind of process could have actually taken place on the primitive Earth. Harold Urey, Stanley’s research advisor, immediately replied, saying ‘If God did not do it this way, then he missed a good bet’. The seminar ended amid the laughter and, as the attendees filed out, some congratulated Stanley on his results.

At the risk of self-promotion, Science played a role in the experiment’s claim to fame—and in perpetuating its legacy. The journal published the original paper by Miller and Urey. More recently, Bada rediscovered some of Miller’s vials from the original spark-discharge work and conducted an analysis that Science published. (Here’s our ScienceNOW story on that modern work and a podcast with Bada about the fascinating backstory that led to it.) Miller’s 1953 classic continues to spark our thoughts.