John Stonestreet and Shane Morris on Turning Chemicals Into Code

Back in January, at a meeting held at the Royal Society in London, a team of scientists and investors announced the largest prize ever offered to solve a scientific mystery. Organized by engineer and business consultant Perry Marshall, the whopping prize of $10 million (ten times the Nobel Prize payout) will be given to any person or team who can “arrange for a digital communication system to emerge or self-evolve without…explicitly designing the system.” The point of the contest is to learn where the genetic code came from and how it became the basis for all life.

The winning experiment, according to their website, “must generate an encoder that sends digital code to a decoder,” and transmit at least five bits of information, or roughly half as much as a comparable segment of DNA. In other words, to claim the prize, you must bring into existence the functional equivalent of the first living cell, without intelligently designing the system.

Judges include Oxford and Royal Society biologist Denis Noble, Harvard Geneticist George Church, and philosopher of science Michael Ruse. According to Noble, a scientist whose work led to the first pacemaker. The prize is so big because evolution “leaves two things completely unexplained: How did life get going in the first place, and what is the origin of the genetic code.”

With refreshing honesty, he continued, “I cannot see personally how DNA could have been there at the beginning. After all, it requires the cell to enable it and to reproduce, and it requires the cell also to correct errors in that reproduction and replication process.”

Perry Marshall explained why he organized the prize by recalling a debate about the origin of life he once had with his brother. Sons of a pastor, Marshall offered a standard argument from design, but his brother retorted that natural processes were sufficient to explain all of life’s complexity.

Marshall wasn’t convinced. As he was writing what would later become his bestselling book on computer networks, he realized that “mathematically [DNA and ethernet] are identical. It’s encoding and decoding. It is a communication system…Genetics is digital communication.”

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SOURCE: Breakpoint, John Stonestreet and Shane Morris

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