A few days ago, a reader asked me to review an article by Dr. James Tour, as well as a video of a talk that he gave. I was initially hesitant to do so, because Dr. Tour is a giant in the field of organic chemistry. For example, he is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry at Rice University. For those who aren’t familiar with the academic structure of universities, only the most elite professors are appointed to a position that is named in honor of someone else. This is called an “endowed professorship,” and anyone who holds such a position is in the upper echelon of academia. He has won several awards for his outstanding research accomplishments, including being named by Thomson Reuters as one of the top ten chemists in the world in 2009. Not only is his research outstanding, but he is also an excellent teacher, having earned the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching at Rice University in both 2007 and 2012. What could I possibly add to the words of someone so knowledgeable and distinguished?
After reading the article, however, I do think I have something to offer. Because of the nature of what he is trying to discuss, his article is very, very technical. There were times, quite frankly, when my eyes glazed over a bit. I didn’t listen to a lot of the video (it seems to cover the same ground as the article), but it is also quite technical. For those who do not have the fortitude to make it through such a technical article or talk, I thought I could summarize it.
The “take home” message is straightforward: We have no idea how some of the most basic molecules necessary for life could have been produced by unguided processes. Why does Dr. Tour feel compelled to write a detailed article making a statement that, in my mind, is quite obvious? He explains:
Those who think scientists understand the issues of prebiotic chemistry are wholly misinformed. Nobody understands them. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. It would be far more helpful (and hopeful) to expose students to the massive gaps in our understanding. They may find a firmer — and possibly a radically different — scientific theory. [Note that “prebiotic chemistry” refers to the chemistry that occurred on earth before life existed.]