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CHAPTER 91

SEATED BESIDE AMBRA on the couch, Langdon studied Edmond’s sallow face projected on the glass display wall and felt a pang of sorrow knowing that Edmond had been suffering in silence from a deadly disease. Tonight, however, the futurist’s eyes shone with pure joy and excitement.

“In a moment, I’ll tell you about this little vial,” Edmond said, holding up the test tube, “but first, let’s take a swim … in the primordial soup.”

Edmond disappeared, and a lightning bolt flashed, illuminating a churning ocean where volcanic islands spewed lava and ash into a tempestuous atmosphere.

“Is this where life commenced?” Edmond’s voice asked. “A spontaneous reaction in a churning sea of chemicals? Or was it perhaps a microbe on a meteorite from space? Or was it … God? Unfortunately, we can’t go back in time to witness that moment. All we know is what happened after that moment, when life first appeared. Evolution happened. And we’re accustomed to seeing it portrayed something like this.”

The screen now showed the familiar timeline of human evolution—a primitive ape slouching behind a line of increasingly erect hominids, until the final one was fully erect, having shed the last of his body hair.

“Yes, humans evolved,” Edmond said. “This is an irrefutable scientific fact, and we’ve built a clear timeline based on the fossil record. But what if we could watch evolution in reverse?”

Suddenly Edmond’s face started growing hair, morphing into a primitive human. His bone structure changed, becoming increasingly apelike, and then the process accelerated to an almost blinding pace, showing glimpses of older and older species—lemurs, sloths, marsupials, platypuses, lungfish, plunging underwater and mutating through eels and fish, gelatinous creatures, plankton, amoebas, until all that was left of Edmond Kirsch was a microscopic bacterium—a single cell pulsating in a vast ocean.

“The earliest specks of life,” Edmond said. “This is where our backward movie runs out of film. We have no idea how the earliest life-forms materialized out of a lifeless chemical sea. We simply cannot see the first frame of this story.”

T=0, Langdon mused, picturing a similar reverse movie about the expanding universe in which the cosmos contracted down to a single point of light, and cosmologists hit a similar dead end.

“‘First Cause,’” Edmond declared. “That’s the term Darwin used to describe this elusive moment of Creation. He proved that life continuously evolved, but he could not figure out how the process all started. In other words, Darwin’s theory described the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest.”

Langdon chuckled, having never heard it stated quite that way.

“So, how did life arrive on earth? In other words, where do we come from?” Edmond smiled. “In the next few minutes, you’ll have an answer to that question. But trust me, as stunning as that answer is, it’s only half of tonight’s story.” He looked directly into the camera and gave an ominous grin. “As it turns out, where we come from is utterly fascinating … but where we are going is utterly shocking.”

Ambra and Langdon exchanged a perplexed look, and although Langdon sensed this was more of Edmond’s hyperbole, the statement left him feeling increasingly uneasy.

“Life’s origin …,” Edmond continued. “It has remained a profound mystery since the days of the first Creation stories. For millennia, philosophers and scientists have been searching for some kind of record of this very first moment of life.”

Edmond now held up the familiar test tube containing the murky liquid. “In the 1950s, two such seekers—chemists Miller and Urey—ran a bold experiment that they hoped might unveil exactly how life began.”

Langdon leaned over and whispered to Ambra, “That test tube is right over there.” He pointed to the display pedestal in the corner.

She looked surprised. “Why would Edmond have it?”

Langdon shrugged. Judging from the strange collection of items in Edmond’s apartment, this vial was probably just a piece of scientific history that he wanted to own.

Edmond quickly described Miller and Urey’s efforts to re-create the primordial soup, trying to create life within a flask of nonliving chemicals.

The screen now flashed a faded New York Times article from March 8, 1953, titled “Looking Back Two Billion Years.”

“Obviously,” Edmond said, “this experiment raised some eyebrows. The implications could have been earth-shattering, especially for the religious world. If life magically appeared inside this test tube, we would know conclusively that the laws of chemistry alone are indeed enough to create life. We would no longer require a supernatural being to reach down from heaven and bestow upon us the spark of Creation. We would understand that life simply happens … as an inevitable by-product of the laws of nature. More importantly, we would have to conclude that because life spontaneously appeared here on earth, it almost certainly did the same thing elsewhere in the cosmos, meaning: man is not unique; man is not at the center of God’s universe; and man is not alone in the universe.”

Edmond exhaled. “However, as many of you may know, the Miller-Urey experiment failed. It produced a few amino acids, but nothing even closely resembling life. The chemists tried repeatedly, using different combinations of ingredients, different heat patterns, but nothing worked. It seemed that life—as the faithful had long believed—required divine intervention. Miller and Urey eventually abandoned their experiments. The religious community breathed a sigh of relief, and the scientific community went back to the drawing board.” He paused, an amused glimmer in his eyes. “That is, until 2007 … when there was an unexpected development.”

Edmond now told the tale of how the forgotten Miller-Urey testing vials had been rediscovered in a closet at the University of California in San Diego after Miller’s death. Miller’s students had reanalyzed the samples using far more sensitive contemporary techniques—including liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry—and the results had been startling. Apparently, the original Miller-Urey experiment had produced many more amino acids and complex compounds than Miller had been able to measure at the time. The new analysis of the vials even identified several important nucleobases—the building blocks of RNA, and perhaps eventually … DNA.

“It was an astounding science story,” Edmond concluded, “relegitimizing the notion that perhaps life does simply happen … without divine intervention. It seemed the Miller-Urey experiment had indeed been working, but just needed more time to gestate. Let’s remember one key point: life evolved over billions of years, and these test tubes had been sitting in a closet for just over fifty. If the timeline of this experiment were measured in miles, it was as if our perspective were limited to only the very first inch …”

He let that thought hang in the air.

“Needless to say,” Edmond went on, “there was a sudden resurgence in interest surrounding the idea of creating life in a lab.”

I remember that, Langdon thought. The Harvard biology faculty had thrown a department party they billed as BYOB: Build Your Own Bacterium.

“There was, of course, a strong reaction from modern religious leaders,” Edmond said, placing air quotes around the word “modern.”

The wall display refreshed to the homepage of a website—creation.com—which Langdon recognized as a recurring target of Edmond’s wrath and ridicule. The organization was indeed strident in its Creationist evangelizing, but it was hardly a fair example of “the modern religious world.”

Their mission statement read: “To proclaim the truth and authority of the Bible, and to affirm its reliability—in particular its Genesis history.”

“This site,” Edmond said, “is popular, influential, and it contains literally dozens of blogs about the dangers of revisiting Miller-Urey’s work. Fortunately for the folks at creation.com, they have nothing to fear. Even if this experiment succeeds in producing life, it probably won’t happen for another two billion years.”

Edmond again held up the test tube. “As you can imagine, I would like nothing more than to fast-forward two billion years, reexamine this test tube, and prove all the Creationists wrong. Unfortunately, accomplishing that would require a time machine.” Edmond paused with a wry expression. “And so … I built one.”

Langdon glanced over at Ambra, who had barely moved since the presentation started. Her dark eyes were transfixed by the screen.

“A time machine,” Edmond said, “is not that difficult to build. Let me show you what I mean.”

A deserted barroom appeared, and Edmond walked into it, moving to a pool table. The balls were racked in their usual triangular pattern, waiting to be broken. Edmond took a pool cue, bent over the table, and firmly struck the cue ball. It raced toward the waiting rack of balls.

An instant before it collided with the rack, Edmond shouted, “Stop!” The cue ball froze in place—magically pausing a moment before impact.

“Right now,” Edmond said, eyeing the frozen moment on the table, “if I asked you to predict which balls would fall into which pockets, could you do it? Of course not. There are literally thousands of possible breaks. But what if you had a time machine and could fast-forward fifteen seconds into the future, observe what happens with the pool balls, and then return? Believe it or not, my friends, we now have the technology to do that.”

Edmond motioned to a series of tiny cameras on the edges of the table. “Using optical sensors to measure the cue ball’s velocity, rotation, direction, and spin axis as it moves, I can obtain a mathematical snapshot of the ball’s motion at any given instant. With that snapshot, I can make extremely accurate predictions about its future motion.”

Langdon recalled using a golf simulator once that employed similar technology to predict with depressing accuracy his tendency to slice golf shots into the woods.

Edmond now pulled out a large smartphone. On the screen was the image of the pool table with its virtual cue ball frozen in place. A series of mathematical equations hung over the cue ball.

“Knowing the cue ball’s exact mass, position, and velocity,” Edmond said, “I can compute its interactions with the other balls and predict the outcome.” He touched the screen, and the simulated cue ball sprang to life, smashing into the waiting rack of balls, scattering them, and sinking four balls in four different pockets.

“Four balls,” Edmond said, eyeing the phone. “Pretty good shot.” He glanced up at the audience. “Don’t believe me?”

He snapped his fingers over the real pool table, and the cue ball released, streaking across the table, loudly smacking into the other balls, and sending them scattering. The same four balls fell in the same four pockets.

“Not quite a time machine,” Edmond said with a grin, “but it does enable us to see the future. In addition, it lets me modify the laws of physics. For example, I can remove friction so that the balls will never slow down … rolling forever until every last ball eventually falls into a pocket.”

He typed a few keys and launched the simulation again. This time, after the break, the ricocheting balls never slowed down, bouncing wildly around the table, eventually falling into pockets at random, until there were only two balls left careening around the table.

“And if I get tired of waiting for these last two balls to drop,” Edmond said, “I can just fast-forward the process.” He touched the screen, and the two remaining balls accelerated in a blur, streaking around the table until they finally fell into pockets. “This way I can see the future, long before it happens. Computer simulations are really just virtual time machines.” He paused. “Of course, this is all fairly simple math in a small, closed system like a pool table. But what about a more complex system?”

Edmond held the Miller-Urey vial and smiled. “I’m guessing you can see where I’m going with this. Computer modeling is a kind of time machine, and it lets us see the future … perhaps even billions of years into the future.”

Ambra shifted on the couch, her eyes never leaving Edmond’s face.

“As you can imagine,” Edmond said, “I am not the first scientist to dream of modeling the earth’s primordial soup. In principle, it’s an obvious experiment—but in practice, it’s a nightmare of complexity.”

Turbulent primordial seas appeared again amid lightning, volcanoes, and massive waves. “Modeling the ocean’s chemistry requires simulation at the molecular level. It would be like predicting the weather so accurately that we knew the precise location of every air molecule at any given moment. Any meaningful simulation of the primordial sea would therefore require a computer to understand not only the laws of physics—motion, thermodynamics, gravity, conservation of energy, and so forth—but chemistry as well, so it could accurately re-create the bonds that would form between every atom within a boiling ocean stew.”

The view above the ocean now plunged beneath the waves, magnifying down into a single drop of water, where a turbulent swirl of virtual atoms and molecules were bonding and breaking apart.

“Sadly,” Edmond said, reappearing on-screen, “a simulation confronted by this many possible permutations requires a massive level of processing power—far beyond the capability of any computer on earth.” His eyes again twinkled with excitement. “That is … any computer except one.”

A pipe organ rang out, playing the famous opening trill to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor along with a stunning wide-angle photograph of Edmond’s massive two-story computer.

“E-Wave,” Ambra whispered, speaking for the first time in many minutes.

Langdon stared at the screen. Of course … it’s brilliant.

Accompanied by the dramatic organ soundtrack, Edmond launched into a fervent video tour of his supercomputer, finally unveiling his “quantum cube.” The pipe organ climaxed with a thunderous chord; Edmond was literally “pulling out all the stops.”

“The bottom line,” he concluded, “is that E-Wave is capable of re-creating the Miller-Urey experiment in virtual reality, with startling accuracy. I cannot model the entire primordial ocean, of course, so I created the same five-liter closed system that Miller and Urey used.”

A virtual flask of chemicals now appeared. The view of the liquid became magnified and remagnified until it reached the atomic level—showing atoms bouncing around in the heated mixture, bonding and rebonding, under the influences of temperature, electricity, and physical motion.

“This model incorporates everything we have learned about the primordial soup since the days of the Miller-Urey experiment—including the probable presence of hydroxyl radicals from electrified steam and carbonyl sulfides from volcanic activity, as well as the impact of ‘reducing atmosphere’ theories.”

The virtual liquid on-screen continued to roil, and clusters of atoms began to form.

“Now let’s fast-forward the process …,” Edmond said excitedly, and the video surged ahead in a blur, showing the formation of increasingly complex compounds. “After one week, we start to see the same amino acids that Miller and Urey saw.” The image blurred again, moving faster now. “And then … at about the fifty-year mark, we start to see hints of the building blocks of RNA.”

The liquid kept churning, faster and faster.

“And so I let it run!” Edmond shouted, his voice rising in intensity.

The molecules on-screen continued to bond, the complexity of the structures increasing as the program fast-forwarded centuries, millennia, millions of years. As the images raced ahead with blinding speed, Edmond called out joyfully, “And guess what eventually appeared inside this flask?”

Langdon and Ambra leaned forward with excitement.

Edmond’s exuberant expression suddenly deflated. “Absolutely nothing,” he said. “No life. No spontaneous chemical reaction. No moment of Creation. Just a jumbled mix of lifeless chemicals.” He let out a heavy sigh. “I could draw only one logical conclusion.” He stared dolefully into the camera. “Creating life … requires God.”

Langdon stared in shock. What is he saying?

After a moment, a faint grin crept across Edmond’s face. “Or,” he said, “perhaps I had missed one key ingredient in the recipe.”

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