Pondering life and science: the trip that changed me

Dave Deamer and Bruce Damer explaining how life on Earth may have began on the banks of the Shaw River, Pilbara Western Australia

People often travel the world in search of a life changing experience. Some people have had life-affirming, mind-broadening trips where they found personal purpose, or pondered deep questions such as the meaning of life.

A couple years ago, in 2015, I went on a trip of a lifetime — a trip that completely changed my life. I know that’s a big statement, but I stand by it. Where did I go? I didn’t achieve personal enlightenment in a secluded meditation retreat in India, nor did I realise my life long dream of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. I went on a camping trip to the blisteringly hot, dusty, red, barren region of the Pilbara in Western Australia to ponder life … with a bunch of scientists.

The Pilbara is often referred to as ‘the cradle of life’ because it has some of Earth’s oldest, best-preserved rocks that contain evidence of the earliest life on this planet — fossils of tiny microbes that lived about 3.5 billion years ago. Scientists have studied the area and the fossils there to answer one of the biggest questions of humankind: how and where did life get started?

So, why did I go on a camping trip to the cradle of life with scientists? At the time, I was working on a project called The Mars Lab — an education program that gets school students to do real scientific investigations to search for evidence of life on Mars. The key goal of this program is to get students to really experience what it’s like to be and think like a scientist so that they can understand how science is done. Since I was working on developing the education experiences for The Mars Lab, the project manager, Dr Carol Oliver, thought that it would be valuable for me to understand how science is done myself. She felt this field trip was just what I needed to gain insight into how science is done.

I was happy to go on this field trip, but I didn’t think I needed any insight into the realm of science — I mean come on, I had a four-year Bachelor of Science with Honours under my belt. I had taught high school science and had been doing science education and outreach for years. I get science!

Yet, what I experienced in the Australian outback changed me profoundly.

A peek behind the scenes of science

The field trip was led by leading experts in geobiology, Professor Malcolm Walter and Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, and their PhD student Tara Djokic, who had all been working in the Pilbara for years studying the fossils in the rocks. Also on the field trip were two other scientists, biochemists, from the U.S. visiting the Pilbara for the first time: Dr David Deamer and Dr Bruce Damer, who both conduct lab experiments to study how life got started on Earth.

At the time, there was a general scientific consensus around one particular origin of life hypothesis: that life on Earth had started at the bottom of the ocean in hot vents that spew mineral-rich water, called ‘black smokers’.

On the other hand, Bruce and Dave had an alternative hypothesis: that life on Earth began in a “warm little pond”, as Charles Darwin had originally suggested. Their lab research led them to infer that life had begun as tiny cells assembling in freshwater hydrothermal fields — basically, in hot springs and geysers on land — not at the bottom of the ocean.

There were many discussions and friendly debates about these two hypotheses in the evenings around the crackling campfire. Both geologists and biochemists passionately describing their research, highlighting their evidence, defending their interpretations and advocating their position. But most importantly, there was great respect, a willingness to learn from each other, exchange ideas, share knowledge and experience and even work together.

I will always remember sitting on the banks of the Shaw River one afternoon. We were at one of the sites where some of the most important fossils of early life are found, which we had examined in detail that morning. We settled down while lunch simmered away on the hot coals to listen to Dave and Bruce tell us the story of our great-great-great grandparents — of how they believed the first life on Earth started in that warm little pond on land. It was incredibly enlightening, insightful and also a little bit emotional to be transported back in time, to when life began, whilst sitting at the site where this exact story may have taken place billions of years ago. (You can actually watch the recording if you're interested).

Fast forward one year to 2016 and I was sitting in a conference room in Perth, listening to Bruce give a presentation on his work — the first "end-to-end" model proposed for life's origins — the Terrestrial Origin of Life Hypothesis. This model and hypothesis is based on Bruce and Dave’s lab experiments, but also partly influenced by Martin, Malcolm and Tara’s work and the observations Bruce made on the Pilbara field trip. It was exciting to see how much the field trip had influenced Bruce and Dave’s work.

Skip ahead again nearly one more year to May 2017 and a new scientific discovery makes headlines worldwide: Charles Darwin may have been right … scientists have found evidence that microbes were living in hot springs in Western Australia 3.48 billion years ago. Tara had found a certain type of rock in the Pilbara containing geyserite — a mineral deposit that only forms in hot springs on land.

Soon after, the cover of the August 2017 edition of Scientific American features an article by Martin, Dave and Tara called Life Springs. The article talks about how deep oceans were thought to be where life on Earth started, but that new evidence points instead to active hot springs on land. It brings together the fieldwork in the Pilbara with the lab experiments and uses Dave and Bruce’s model to illustrate how life would have started in this landscape.

The conversation is changing and the consensus is being challenged.

Eyes wide open

I feel pretty lucky to have been part of this story and to have been there to witness science as it happened. If it wasn’t for this experience — this field trip to the cradle of life — I wouldn’t understand it the way I do now. NOW I get it!

I get how science is tentative, uncertain and provisional. That nothing is final and nothing is fact. There is no right answer — there is just evidence. Sometimes, there is more or stronger evidence to support a particular idea or theory that may lead to a consensus among scientists, but new evidence can throw a spanner in the works or old evidence can be reinterpreted. Evidence supports but does not prove … the word “prove” is not used by scientists.

I get how much creativity and imagination goes into the entire process of science — from beginning to end. The creativity it takes to come up with an experiment to reproduce the beginnings of life in a lab or the imagination it takes to see what the landscape may have looked like in the Pilbara 3.5 billion years ago based on the clues left behind.

I get how collaborative science can be. Scientists come together, sometimes from different fields, to discuss, debate, share and influence each other. Science is not an individual endeavour — scientists depend on each other for knowledge, expertise, feedback and even critique. Science just can’t be done in isolation.

But most importantly, I get that there is not just one linear, rigid scientific method that everyone follows — ‘the’ scientific method is a myth. Some scientists trek through fields and collect rocks to analyse later in the lab, others design intricate experiments in test tubes and petri dishes, and others create models to explain natural phenomenon. Some start with hypotheses, others with observations. Science is a diverse set of practices and fields, and there are lots of ways to do scientific research.

The way forward

Hindsight is 20-20 and I now realise how many misconceptions I had about science. You can’t really understand science unless you experience it yourself — and you don’t get that experience from high school science, or even a university undergraduate degree for that matter.

So, yes, this camping trip to the outback was enlightening. And like many life-changing trips, it clarified for me what I wanted to do with my life: change science education.

Lectures, worksheets and lab experiments that use recipe-like methods to lead students to pre-determined results just don’t reflect how science is actually done and reinforce the myths that science is rigid, linear, conclusive, absolute and uncreative. But few teachers have the training or knowledge to do things differently (I didn’t!). The only way that we can get people to understand how science is done, and perhaps improve scientific literacy, is to change the way science is taught. Science education needs to become more experiential and less transmissive — more about being involved in the process of science than about acquiring scientific knowledge. Science education should provide both young people and teachers with opportunities to actually experience what it’s like to be and think like a scientist. And that’s what I’m working on right now.

P.S. – I’m now doing my PhD with this awesome bunch of people … and it all started with this field trip.

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