Robert Shapiro, 1935-2011

August 3rd, 2011

I was saddened to learn of the recent death of Robert Shapiro, Professor Emeritus of chemistry at New York University.  Although I went to NYU and essentially lived in the chemistry department, I cannot recall meeting him in my time as an undergrad.  It’s a shame, because he was one of the few professors in the field of origin-of-life chemistry—my favorite subject of research.

I continue to be amazed that OoL research is not more popular among chemists.  The mystery of how life originated on Earth roughly four billion years ago has got to be the greatest question in our planet’s history, and the answer all but certainly falls within the exclusive purview of chemistry—physics is too impractical to solve the problem, and by the time you get to biology, the problem has long since been solved.

Shapiro wrote what is by far my favorite book about the origin of life, Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth.  When people ask me what book they should read to get a taste of the problem, I tell them that just about any popular book on the subject is a fine first read, but they should be sure to read Shapiro’s book next.  I think it’s best to get a taste of the romanticism of the field and listen to the proponents’ sales pitches for the main theories before experiencing how Shapiro tears them apart. Origins is a bucket of cold water best tossed on someone after a long, warm shower—it stings, but it is also invigorating.

I was glad to finally meet Shapiro when he visited Harvard to give a talk in 2008.  True to form, he delivered a lecture poo-pooing the idea that RNA or DNA could have been important in the origin of life—a gutsy prospect considering RNA-OoL proponent (and eventual Nobel laureate) Jack Szostak was at Harvard and sure to be in the audience.  But that’s the thing I loved about Shapiro—he seemed to live to identify problematic ideas and call them out with vigor.  As more and more chemists join the ranks of those who oversell their work, I think that it’s great when respected chemists stand up and share their skepticism about the value of an idea, discovery, or line of research.  While many professors are happy to grumble in private, very few are willing to criticize their colleagues publicly.

17 Responses to “Robert Shapiro, 1935-2011”

  1. excimer Says:

    People remember when they’re criticized when they’re reviewing grants. Shapiro lived in a different time, when you stabbed in the front. Rest in peace.

  2. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Shapiro was indeed an important player in the OOL field and I resoundingly second his skepticism about RNA and DNA. I personally am partial to two OOL theories; Cairns-Smith’s “life from clay” hypothesis and Dyson’s “double origin” proposal.

  3. Undergrad Senior Says:

    I’ve been hearing a lot of talk around the chem bloggosphere about the OOL field. Could anyone help me out and point me towards which groups (and their institutions) are active in this field? I’d like to read up a bit more on it as I’ve been looking at more traditional fields mainly, but Paul has continuously piqued my interest w.r.t. to OOL chem.

  4. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Undergrad Senior- depending on your interests, here’s a very short list:

    David Deamer- UCSC
    William Scott- UCSC
    Jim Ferris: RPI
    Jack Szostak: Harvard
    Ronald Breslow- Columbia (chirality)
    Donna Blackmond- Scripps (chirality)
    Robert Hazen- Carnegie Institution
    Mike Yarus- Colorado
    Eric Gaucher- Georgia Tech
    Marcelo Gleiser- Dartmouth

  5. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    Mathematics has its great problems (does P=NP, twin prime conjecture etc.).
    So does physics (origin of universe, GUT etc.).

    In my opinion, OoL is the chemistry’s only Great Problem and the only one it needs. It seems that an answer would be far more profound than anything from math or physics.

  6. JMB Says:

    I’d also add Nick Hud at Georgia Tech to CW’s list

  7. Steve Says:

    Some more additions for CW’s list: John Sutherland (Cambridge), Clemens Richert (Stuttgart),
    Michael Göbel (Frankfurt)

  8. NotAnAstrobiologist Says:

    M.R. Ghadiri
    Jerry Joyce
    (both Scripts I believe)

  9. Paul Says:

    To add a few more:

    Jeffrey Bada – UCSD
    Irene Chen – Harvard
    James Kasting – Penn State
    Robert Pascal – Montpelier 2 (not the Princeton prof)

    And excimer’s comment is spot on, unfortunately.

  10. Cartesian Says:

    Here are some friends about skepticism :

  11. IrII Says:

    To add a major european player:

    A Cordova – Stockholm University and also Mid Sweden University

  12. Dr. Zoidberg Says:

    Is that the same A Cordova that was accused of stealing other peoples’ work several years ago?

  13. Hap Says:

    Probably – and from Blackmond (who’s on the list righteously).

  14. European Chemist Says:

    No but honestly, does anyone still take A Cordova seriously?

  15. wolfie Says:

    Thanks, I agree with most of what wikipedia has to say about Robert Shapiro. If I may please post my humble opinion on the chemical origin of life, because I’ve studied the literature years ago, and knowledge on this complex subject does not change so fast.

    For my blind eyes, it seems only natural and likely, that DNA or DNA-based life will evolve on a planet with the chemical conditions as ours. From what I’ve read, there is some probability that nucleobases and their more simple precursors can evolve on clays such as montmorillonite, and after this, the arrangement of these bases with the help of a little phosphate and sugars into R- or DNA may be only a matter of some time and patience.

    So. if I were a demiurg, or a programmer, who constructs a universe like ours arranged in pixels (commonly called elemental particles here) on a capable computer in his environment, it seems only likely that He or She will obtain some molecular form such as DNA sooner or later on some out of the quadrillions of planets of his or her universe having by chance the chemical conditions of our earth. Supposed that, I, as the demiurg want to create a form of life in my computer, and follow this rationale, I’d only have to wait for quite some time, 4 billion years, for example, until I’ll get some RNA or DNA and peptides on one of my earthlike planets in my artificial universe. The rest would be Darwinian evolution.

    Of course, this would not exclude other forms of self-replicating molecules or complex chemical systems under other chemical conditions such as on earth. Or even on planents similar to our earth, other self-replicating chemical systems could have evolved, such as the Vogons for example, that we are far from even knowing.

    Crazy ? or not ? There are even Science articles on the creation of artificial worlds on our simple computers.

  16. wolfie Says:

    anyway, the “problem” of the chemical origin of life will never be exactly solved, because it is much too complex

    it’s more your pribram than ours, Paul

  17. Anne C.Hanna Says:

    Just yesterday I happened to grab a copy of Michael Behe’s execrable Darwin’s Black Box out of the discount bin at a local used book store, and I was shocked to see an apparently positive blurb from Robert Shapiro on the back, given all the nice things you say about him here. Then I read this, this, and this and was enlightened.

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