While some biologists argue over whether living things are so complex they had to be supernaturally designed, others are taking life apart and trying to put it back together in the lab like an old jalopy.
That's the kind of thing that makes "Nova ScienceNOW" host Robert Krulwich literally go wow.
"The key bit of business here is that most people think of living things as amazing, as a miracle. ... But for a subset of people, this is not something so beautiful and mysterious that they just sit and stare," Krulwich said of the latest topic for his public-TV series. "For them, this is more like an automobile, where you can look at the pieces and figure out how it goes."
Artificial life? It's all in a day's wonder for Krulwich, a veteran journalist whose work appears on programs ranging from ABC News' "Nightline" to NPR's "All Things Considered" to PBS' "Nova ScienceNOW," which airs five times a year as part of the "Nova" documentary series.
Over the years, Krulwich has developed a knack for coming up with entertaining explanations for economic and scientific concepts that might otherwise seem irreducibly complex, ranging from interest rates to string theory.
Krulwich said the starting point for his kind of story — particularly a "Nova ScienceNOW" story — is often something that makes him say, "Wow, how did they do that?"
"The harder thing is to explain it, [to say] 'Now let's go behind the wonder and look at the machinery,'" Krulwich said.
So how does he do that? Krulwich said it's a question of finding "very prestigious learned people" and getting them to use metaphors to explain the key scientific principles in everyday terms. Sometimes, Krulwich has to repeat the process several times, at the risk of having learned people think he's a simpleton.
"Basically, you argue them into a metaphor that they can live with," Krulwich explained.
For Tuesday's "Nova ScienceNOW" episode, Krulwich talked with biochemist David Deamer of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who is trying to reproduce a primordial process by which organic materials might have become surrounded by a protective membrane, perhaps setting the stage for the first biological cells. Krulwich spun up some chemicals with DNA 2.0 President Jeremy Minshull, whose company is trying to reverse-engineer genes and someday perhaps even entire cells. And he spoke with Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, about the definition of life itself.
There are a lot of "perhapses" and "mights" in all this, and that's exactly what Krulwich is aiming for with "Nova ScienceNOW."
"You're at that interesting place where you think you know something — but it's a little more tentative," Krulwich said. "And that's the basic mood in science."
The other subjects addressed in Tuesday's show carry on that theme of unsettled science:
- Why lightning might actually be sparked by cosmic rays.
- Why we should have known how much damage a hurricane could do to New Orleans.
- Why birds just might be brainier than we once thought.
- Why fish are swimming on the frontier of veterinary medicine.
- And why real aliens, if they exist, probably wouldn't look like at all like they do in the movies.
The entire episode will be accessible online after it airs on TV.
Krulwich is already looking ahead to the next episode, which just might include a story on how viral diseases like bird flu jump from one species to another. He noted that pigs as well as birds appear to play a role in the development of flu viruses hazardous to humans.
"Apparently it's in the pig gut where the virus says, 'Well, let's see, today I think I'm going to be a little bit pig, and a little bit bird and a little bit human,'" he said. "I'm right in the middle of this, but it looks like the pig has got a little factory going on in there."
Krulwich acknowledged that the tentativeness of the scientific process is sometimes hard for the general public to understand — leading some people to conclude either that scientists don't really know the full story, or that there are some things too mysterious to be known.
He said most scientists would probably agree that there's still much that's unknown, but would be deeply suspicious of the claim that some things are unknowable — no matter what scriptures might say. Krulwich, who describes himself as a religious person as well as a science journalist, can see both sides of the issue.
"I'm very comfortable with the idea that some things are not knowable," he said, "but then, I'm not a scientist."
This report originally appeared as a Cosmic Log item on Oct. 17, 2005.