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Student Multimedia display at Los Alamos Public Library

A New Mexico Highlands University student multimedia display on the origins of life opened Nov. 19 at the Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos. The opening accompanied a lecture by noted biophysicist Harold Morowitz.

The display, which began as a Highlands University Media Arts class project and was further developed by graduate students Lauren Addario and Kara Pajewski, contains banners, video kiosks and interactive elements detailing research by the Santa Fe Institute on the origin of life on earth.

“The exciting aspect to the Santa Fe Institute is it’s a place where several different people from different disciplines — scientists, economists – come together to work on research,” Pajewski said.

Addario said it was rewarding to work on the project, which was funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the institute.

“This is such groundbreaking research, it’s almost intimidating to try to transcribe it and present it graphically,” Addario said. “I feel I’ve learned the value of diving into someone else’s research and accurately reflect it, because the research is so complex.”

The exhibit, which will change to reflect ongoing research, will travel through New Mexico and to the National Science Foundation headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“We didn’t know it would go so far,” Addario said. “That wasn’t even on my radar at all. This was such an incredible opportunity.”

Morowitz said he was pleased by the outcome of the Highlands University exhibit.

“I’m awed by this group at New Mexico Highlands, said Morowitz, who is working at the Santa Fe Institute with scientists from George Mason University, the Carnegie Institution, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “I’m awed that a group of non-scientists can take subtle and sophisticated material and present it. That’s the kind of collaboration and interaction I’m really impressed with. It reflects very well what our five institutions are doing in getting at the origin of life.”

Speaking to approximately 60 people, including Highlands President Jim Fries, at the Los Alamos Library, Morowitz said there are several schools of thought on how life originated on earth.

“There’s no fossil evidence of the origin of life,” said Morowitz, who has published several books on the thermodynamics of living systems. “If we’re going to recover the origin of life, it’s going to be by good theory and research and really understanding the subject.”

Morowitz said the scientific search for the origin of life accelerated in the 1950s following an experiment by Stanley Miller and Harold C. Urey. In the experiment, the two scientists took molecules believed to form the atmosphere of early earth, methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water and introduced an electric current to simulate lightning. In the experiment, a small percentage of carbon formed some amino acids used to make proteins.

A new dimension was added to the study, Morowitz said, when scientists began studying the Galapagos Trench using the research submarine Alvin.

“We saw a previously undiscovered group of organisms developing out of the black smokers where the hot water was coming out of the trenches,” Morowitz said. “This was providing nutrients for a previously undiscovered ecosystem to arise.

“I call these two theories the heaven and hell theories,” Morowitz said. “Either it was driven by light coming down from heaven, or it was the hot sulfurous nasty stuff bubbling up. I was once in the heaven school of thought, but then I must admit I converted to the hell school of thought. What distinguishes these schools of thought is one assumes the source was photochemical and the other is electro chemicals.”

Morowitz said an important question is how simple compounds could lead to life.

“It really is simple in the sense that it’s a few hundred molecules, which lead to everything these bacteria do,” Morowitz said. “The moral of the story is, yes it leads to complexity, but at the base it’s very simple.”