According to the scientists, life on earth began around four thousand million years ago when the world was a young, but forbidding planet. The turbulent atmosphere in those times was a mixture of steam, nitrogen, methane, ammonia, carbon and many other gases. But one gas was absent: oxygen. This gas is produced by plant life and did not exist in a free state before the arrival of life, but how exactly, did life on earth begin? Well, established science holds that life came into being in an entirely accidental way. The dead matter floating about in the oceans of the early earth supposedly consisted of various random molecules that collided with one another, and one day, a specific molecule was formed in this random way which could reproduce copies of itself. But there are problems with this theory.
Protein chains - organic compounds containing the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen - consist of sub-units called amino acids, and there are 20 possibilities for each link in the protein chain. The French biophysicist Lecomte de Nouy has calculated that if a new combination were tried every millionth of a second, it would take a period longer than the life of the earth to form the right type of protein chain! Nevertheless, scientists are adamant about the theory of life beginning in the world's primeval ocean-soup. In 1952 it occurred to an American graduate student - Stanley Lloyd Miller - that an experiment to reproduce the environment conducive to life in primordial times could be set up in the laboratory. He put methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water in a flask and boiled the contents for days, occasionally discharging some artificial lightning (via two electrodes) through the mixture to simulate the ultraviolet radiation of the sun. Miller observed that the mixture in the flask quickly darkened. After a week, he analyzed the solution that had formed in the flask and found that, in addition to rudimentary substances lacking in nitrogen atoms, he had glycine and alanine, two simple amino acids. There were also minute traces of more complicated amino acids.
Miller was surprised at the compounds forming so quickly in such large quantities. In the mere space of a week, one-sixth of the methane in the flask had produced such startling compounds. The fact that Miller had created the building blocks of life in a laboratory generated shockwaves that elated the scientific community and naturally upset the religious authorities, but 115 years before Miller's experiment, a 53-year-old Englishman named Andrew Crosse carried out a similar experiment. Crosse's experiment allegedly produced no mere amino acids, but the formation of a totally new type of insect.
Andrew Crosse was born into a wealthy family on June 17th, 1784. He was a child prodigy who mastered Ancient Greek at the age of eight. When Crosse was nine he was sent to Dr Seyer's School at Bristol, where he was captivated by the subject of science. Around the age of twelve, Crosse became obsessed with the new science of electricity. Young Crosse was a notorious joker, and often wired up the metal doorknobs of the classroom doors to a huge accumulator in order to give the teachers at the school an electric shock whenever they entered the class. Electricity was to become a lifetime obsession, and when Crosse inherited the family estates and fortune upon the death of his mother in 1805, the young science buff used a substantial sum of his newly-acquired wealth to set up a well-equipped laboratory at Fyne Court, his family seat, where he was to perform a series of bizarre experiments.
The isolated country mansion of Fyne Court in the Quantock Hills of Somerset gained an eerie reputation, thanks to Crosse. The locals were sure he was an evil wizard, because of the way Crosse captured the powers of lightning by conducting the bolts through a network of copper cables (over a mile in length) that radiated from the Fyne Court laboratory like a gigantic web. Whenever a storm raged over the Quantock Hills, the superstitious locals would watch the forks of lightning dancing about on the copper cables. To the Somerset yokels, Squire Crosse had to be in league with the Devil to be capable of attracting the lightning, but unknown to them, Crosse was tapping the huge voltages from the lightning flashes to power his electrical experiments. The scientist was intrigued by the various types of crystals that are formed when an electrical current is passed through certain mineral solutions. The outcomes of this pioneering experimental work were written in a notebook. In 1837, this notebook recorded a dramatic incident that has never been explained. The entry reads:
In the course of my endeavours to form artificial minerals
by a long continued electric action on fluids holding in
solution such substances as were necessary to my purpose,
I had recourse to every variety of contrivance that I could
think of; amongst others I constructed a wooden frame, which
supported a Wedgewood funnel, within which rested a quart
basin on a circular piece of mahogany. When this basin was
filled with a fluid, a strip of flannel wetted with the same
was suspended over the side of the basin and inside the
funnel, which, acting as a syphon, conveyed the fluid out of
the basin through the funnel in successive drops: these drops
fell into a smaller funnel of glass placed beneath the other,
and which contained a piece of somewhat porous red oxide from
Vesuvius. This stone was kept constantly electrified.
On the fourteenth day from the commencement of this experi ment, I observed through the lens a few small whitish excres cences or nipples, projecting from about the middle of the electrified stone. On the eighteenth day these projections enlarged, and stuck out seven or eight filaments, each of them longer than the hemisphere on which they grew. On the twenty sixth day these appearances assumed the form of a perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail.
On the twenty-eighth day these little creatures moved their legs...
After a few days they detached themselves from the stone, and moved about at pleasure.
Crosse was obviously amazed at the incredible outcome of his experiment, and he tried in vain to find a rational explanation that would account for the strange insect. He immediately repeated the experiment and recorded the outcome in his notebook again:
After many months' action and consequent formation of certain
crystalline matters, I observed similar excrescences with those
before described at the edge of the fluid in every one of the
cylinders except two which contained the carbonate of potassa
and the metalic arsenic; and in due time the whitish appearances
were developed into insects. In my first experiment I had made
use of flannel, wood, and a volcanic stone. In the last, none
of these substances were present.
But Crosse could still not accept what he was seeing. The existence of the new mites - or acari, as they are called - seemed to run contrary to the laws of biology. Crosse was determined to get to the bottom of the mite mystery, so he carried out the experiment yet again, and later wrote:
I had omitted to insert within the bulb of the retort a resting
place for these acari (they are always destroyed if they fall
back into the fluid from which they have emerged). It is strange
that, in a solution eminently caustic and under an atmosphere
of oxihydrogen gas, one single acarus should have made its
Crosse wrote a detailed report of his bizarre discovery and sent it to the Electrical Society in London. Although the report was sceptically received, W. H, Weeks, a respected experimenter was chosen by the Electrical Society to repeat the Crosse experiment. Weeks was much more careful than Crosse at setting up the experiment. He thoroughly sterilized all of the lab equipment and worked under stringent quarantine-like conditions. News of the Crosse experiment broke as Weeks worked. A newspaper in the west of England published an account of the Crosse experiment, and soon the news agencies of Britain and the rest of Europe were running the story. Then the results of the Weeks experiment were announced; Weeks too had produced the strange insects. The reclusive Crosse suddenly found himself in the eye of a hurricane of unwanted publicity. The mites he had created were named Acarus Crossii in his honour, and the creator-scientist was hailed as a genius by many of his colleagues. But the religious authorities and the ignorant hoi polloi were outraged by the 'blaspheming' Crosse. They saw him as a meddling devil who had set himself up as a rival of God. When Crosse returned to Fyne Court, the locals threw stones at him and killed his livestock. On several occasions the dullards even set fire to his crops, and the local Reverend Philip Smith, who incited much of the trouble, even conducted a service of exorcism on Crosse's country estate!
On July 6th, 1855, the controversial scientist died after suffering a paralytic seizure. His last words were, "The utmost extent of human knowledge is but comparative ignorance."
Even today, scientists cannot explain away the acari that were apparently created by Crosse, and what's more, no scientist is even willing to reproduce the fascinating 19th century experiment.
From Tom Slemen's Mysteries(Bluecoat Press)