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No. 75: May-Jun 1991

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The first food: tholin

"You've just had a hard day evolving into the first life-form on your primitive planet, and you're ready to chow down. Problem: What can you eat? A quick survey of the food chain isn't promising; you're it. Do you simply starve to death, ending your world's brief experiment with life? Not if a rust-colored substance called tholin is within reach. Tholin may have served as breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the first life on Earth."

The tholins are hard, red-brownish substances made of complex organic compounds. They do not exist naturally on earth, because our present oxidizing atmosphere blocks their synthesis. However, tholins can be made in the lab by subjecting mixtures of methane, ammonia, and water vapor to simulated lightning discharges. Conditions like this probably exist many places in the universe. In fact, the icy moons of the outer solarsystem planets appear ideal places for tholin manufacturing.

What would eat such stuff? Lab tests show that many kinds of bacteria love it and thrive on it. (Chaikin, Andrew; "First Foods," Discover, p. 18, February 1991.)

Comment. A purposeless universe that just happens to create a substance for primitive life? Strange that things should be this way!

From Science Frontiers #75, MAY-JUN 1991. 1991-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987