Life turned upside down

By Carl Zimmer | January 31, 2012 11:59 am

Thousands of papers get published every week, but every now and then a truly strange one pops up. On December 23, a new journal called Life published a paper by Case Western Reserve University biochemist Eric Andrulis called “Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life.”

At Ars Technica, John Timmer unpacks this 105-page paper and delves into the weirdness, in a post called “How the craziest f#@!ing paper got published and promoted.”

The basic idea is that everything, from subatomic particles to living systems, is based on helical systems the author calls “gyres,” which transform matter, energy, and information. These transformations then determine the properties of various natural systems, living and otherwise. What are these gyres? It’s really hard to say; even Andrulis admits that they’re just “a straightforward and non-mathematical core model” (although he seems to think that’s a good thing). Just about everything can be derived from this core model; the author cites “major phenomena including, but not limited to, quantum gravity, phase transitions of water, why living systems are predominantly CHNOPS (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur), homochirality of sugars and amino acids, homeoviscous adaptation, triplet code, and DNA mutations.”

He’s serious about the “not limited to” part; one of the sections describes how gyres could cause the Moon to form.

Is this a viable theory of everything? The word “boson,” the particle that carries forces, isn’t in the text at all. “Quark” appears once—in the title of one of the 800 references. The only subatomic particle Andrulis describes is the electron; he skips from there straight up to oxygen. Enormous gaps exist everywhere one looks.

The theory is supposed to be testable, but the word “test” only shows up in the text twice. In both cases, Andrulis simply claims his theory is testable in specific areas of study. He does not indicate what those tests might be, nor what results would be predicted based on his gyres.

I could easily go into more specifics (very easily—I’ve got lots of notes), but it’s clear that there’s nothing in the paper that much resembles science.

Timmer goes on to look at how the paper glided smoothly into the science media machine, first with a press release from Case Western , and then with reprints of said press release at outlets like Science Daily and Physorg, without anyone wondering if it deserved this sort of attention.

I wondered how the paper got published and checked out the editorial board of Life. One name popped out at me: Stephen Mojzsis, a University of Colorado geochemist. I met Mojzsis while working on a story about the age of the Earth for National Geographic, and I’ve stayed in touch on and off ever since.  I dropped him a note Sunday to ask about the paper. To which he replied,

“You saw it before me!  I am pretty unhappy about it.  Have just contacted the Editor in Chief.”

The more Mojzsis looked into it, the less he liked the situation. Yesterday he tendered his resignation from the board. Today his name is gone from the journal’s web site, along with a number of other editors.

I have to scramble today to get ready for a talk at the University of Maryland tomorrow, so I won’t be digging deep into this story. I’d suggest you keep up with Timmer, as well as Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch, to see how this drama unfolds.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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