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No. 95: Sep-Oct 1994

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A DEEP-SEA HYDROTHERMAL VENT INSTEAD OF A WARM LITTLE POND?

If earth life didn't arrive from outer space (See under ASTRONOMY.), it may have arisen a couple miles below the ocean's surface at hydrothermal vents. The curious glows recently remarked at these vents (SF#87) have stimulated much speculation as to the potential role of these glows in the origin of life:

"The history of hydrothermal activity predates the origin of life, and light in the deep sea has been a continuous phenomenon on a geological time scale and may have served either as a seed or refugium for the evolution of biological photochemical reactions or adaptations."

We formally classify this item under GEOPHYSICS because scientists are still pondering how these glows are created. Some of the light is obviously black-body radiation from the very hot (350C) water but:

"...other potential, narrow-band sources of light may be superimposed on the blackbody radiation spectrum, including crystaloluminescence, Cerenkov radiation, chemiluminescence, triboluminescence, sonoluminescence, and the burning of methane in supercritical water."

(Van Dover, Cindy Lee, et al; "Light at Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents," Eos, vol. 75, 1994.)

Comment. If cold, diffuse molecular clouds in deep space can synthesize glycine, imagine what the hot, chemically-rich fluids around hydrothermal vents might be able to do.

From Science Frontiers #95, SEP-OCT 1994. 1994-2000 William R. Corliss