‘Where?’ asked the visitor.
‘At the place where it all started. Life. See this?’ Opening a fridge door, he held up a sealed petri dish with a grey smear of something lying in the middle. The visitor removed his spectacles for a closer look, squinting as the biophysicist rattled off his prepared commentary. ‘These are the amino acids that would have existed here on this planet around 20 billion years ago. We think some global event probably did it, maybe the passing of a comet. Either the heat, the impact, the radiation, or a coming together of all three, caused a reaction that created completely new chains of molecules- and ended up as the thing we call DNA.’ Satisfied, the biophysicist replaced the petri dish in the fridge, next to hundreds of others, and shut the door.‘Do we know for certain what caused the change?’ asked the visitor, who seemed to be impressed.
‘No, but we’re close. If it was a comet, the gradual changes of temperature on this planet's surface might have done it- or even something sudden, like pieces of ice breaking off from the comet and falling to earth and seeding it with DNA from somewhere else...’
‘...Which still wouldn’t answer the question of what generated Life in the first place,’ interrupted the visitor.
‘Exactly. But at least we’d have a clue as to how it ended up here.’
‘True. So... apart from a comet...could anything else have done it, in your opinion?’
‘We’re working on that by due process of elimination. Differences in electrical fields and gravity, concentrations of different acids, temperatures, rare minerals... it’s all about comparing the sort of things you’ll see floating around hot geysers at the bottom of the oceans. You’ll have seen the nature films- polyps, tiny white crabs, rare corals - all sorts of interesting life-forms appear down there.’
The visitor frowned. ‘But those habitats exist in almost complete darkness. Have you factored for the effect of Light itself?’
‘Yes, we ran a few trials last month. So far, it’s not made any appreciable difference, but we haven’t ruled it out.’
His answer seemed to do. They wandered on further through the facility, the biophysicist introducing the visitor to various other specialists and technicians, carefully explaining their roles in the research programme after each introduction. This was not a casual visit, of course. Supporters need to be impressed, and this visitor had stumped up a great deal of seed-corn capital funding. Naturally, he’d need to see how it was being spent, before giving the nod to further investment.
They paused at one point to sit by a suitably scenic window, and sip some exquisite coffee.
‘So how long will this current series of tests take?’ asked the visitor, stirring in some sugar.
The biophysicist blew on his own drink to cool it. ‘That batch, the ones you saw in the fridge? A week. But that’s just one small avenue, trying out lots of different influences on one calculated mix of amino acids. But the number of variations is almost infinite. We’ll pursue the most promising ones first, and go on from there. That's Science. Taking lots of little methodical steps.’
The visitor smiled. ‘So when you said you were nearly there in working out where Life emerged, it was a metaphorical nearly there, wasn’t it? This search could take you a lifetime.’
The biophysicist looked slightly uncomfortable. ‘Perhaps. But that’s science. It's all about developing the best hypothesis and following it, by purpose of elimination, until you approach the answers that best fit the question.’
‘So what will you do when you finally find that answer that best fits your question?’
‘What... about where Life comes from? I don’t know. I suppose it’s all about trying to understand the process. Once we’ve done that, then we’ll start working out what to do with it, just like we're doing with unravelling the Human Genome.’ He paused. ‘Actually, I was going to ask you, if you don’t mind... what’s your own personal interest in funding this project?’ He tried sipping the coffee. Still too hot. But asking that question, so soon… had he gone too far?
There was a silence in the room, but not a chill. The visitor had turned in his chair to look out the window, but didn’t look angry – just thoughtful. Then he turned back. ‘My reasons for funding it? Rather like yours, actually. I believe in the scientific method too, I knew of your work, and wanted to see if you could do it. Call it personal curiosity. Is that enough?’
It seemed to be, and the morning’s tour continued after they’d finished the coffee and discussed a few other details. The visitor had to leave at lunchtime, but appeared satisfied, and his departure led to several sighs of relief as reports of his positive responses were gossiped around the facility. Good news, apparently. The funding would continue for at least another three years. Everyone could relax for now. With no small sense of celebration, research staff were sent home early for the day.
Later that evening, under cover of darkness and the relaxed mood, the visitor returned and let himself in, having secretly obtained all the security clearances and necessary passcodes, which he was, after all, paying for quite generously. Once inside, he made his way back to the set of refrigerated samples, selected one petri dish, uncovered it... and breathed on the sample. Satisfied, he replaced it, ensured everything was left looking exactly as before, and returned to the entrance where his car was parked outside.
‘Life, don’t talk to me about Life...’ he muttered, as the car sped out along the drive. ‘It only took me six days.’