With These Four Bottles- the Arrogance of Man

The Man of Science was at the height of his glory as the spotlights glared, the cameras clicked and the national press assembled to hear his announcement. He had discovered the origins of life. It was a monumental day in the history of Humankind and he was proud of his accomplishment. His story went viral on the internet and made the newspaper headlines; even Good Morning America led with a story on his accomplishment. It was heady stuff all right.

Yes, it was 2010 and the mystery of life had finally been solved. He had created man-made DNA—an artificial life form—and had solved the age old mystery of the universe. Where did we all come from? How did it all start? He was certain he had the answer; it was so simple in the end. All this time, and the answer lie in his lab. All one had to do—indeed, all that the universe had to do—was to mix the right four chemicals together, introduce an electrical charge (or boot it up as one might say) and voila—life!

“I have taken the mystery out of life,” he trumpeted before an adoring press. “All we need are these four bottles, a chemical synthesizer, a computer and we can create the basic building blocks of life.” Of course, this begged the question as to whether the “God” that mankind had believed in for centuries was necessary at all. In fact, with the correct mixture of the right four substances, perhaps a random lightning strike, and nature itself (or the Man of Science) could easily create life. After all, this Man of Science had done it—he had the proof. Now it was time to demystify the origin of life and announce it to the world. “God” was irrelevant. No sir, the right combination of four chemicals plus electricity, at the right moment in history, plus several billion years and here we are. Here it all is—through the miracle of chemistry.

Of course, this Man of Science had the right to be proud—he had discovered the origin of life. He looked forward to a lifetime of honors, grants and awards, lectures and a prestigious appointment to some Science Chair at some institution of higher learning, where he could hold forth on the meaning and origins of life and teach future generations of humans the real truth behind their existence. Creationism, a Divine Being—all were seemingly irrelevant and meaningless. The answer lie in science. Clearly the primordial swamp of chemicals and a lighting bolt—these were our mother and father, our creators. The Man Upstairs—had nothing to do with it. Science had seemingly rendered Him irrelevant.

As the weeks went by, the Man of Science settled into his busy routine. There were scientific papers to write, calls to return, interviews to give, and lectures to book. He was much in demand, this Man of Science, because he knew how to create artificial life in a test tube. His formerly mundane life had taken a new turn. He was the man of the hour, his upcoming work,  With These Four Bottles: The Origin of Life was already planned; he had secured a publisher and a fat advance check. He was on top of his game and looking forward to his new celebrity. Fitting, after all, because he was a Man of Science, who had explained the meaning of life and taken the mystery out of it. He was busy traveling around the world lecturing to audiences who listened intently as he held forth and demonstrated how to make life in a tube. The applications were manifold; the potential uses for artificial life endless. There was not only honor and glory, but the promise of untold riches as well. All because of these four bottles. “What was origin of life?” The question was so profound, yet the answer so mundane. It was about the miracle of chemistry all along.

One night, deep in study, working on his fourth chapter of With These Four Bottles the Man of Science was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was very late and he rarely had visitors at such an hour. He approached the door and squinted through the glass peep hole in the middle to see who was bothering him at this hour. “What do you want?” he asked the slightly disheveled grey-haired man standing outside. He seemed harmless enough. His slightly wrinkled face and his warm smile spoke of wisdom and honesty somehow. “Just a few moments to discuss your work, if I may,” the stranger replied. The Man of Science opened the door as far as the chain would allow, and questioned the stranger further. “Who are you?” He asked. “Just an old man intently interested in your research, with a few questions about your work, that is all,” he replied. “Questions about what?” the Man of Science pressed him further. “The origins of life, how it all started—things that only you, a man of science, could answer,” he replied. “There are things I need to understand.” “Very well,” replied the Man of Science. There was something oddly compelling about the stranger and he seemed innocuous enough. Besides, to a man of science who spent hours in the lab creating life, human contact was refreshing now and then. It was fun to hold forth on the work he had performed and good for the ego to lecture those less knowledgeable in such matters.

The Man of Science invited the stranger in and offered him a cup of tea. The stranger politely refused. There was something odd and slightly unsettling about the stranger, but the Man of Science could not put his finger on it. His piercing black eyes seemed to look through the Man of Science. He smiled slightly at the Man of Science and thanked him for his offer. “Too late for tea I am afraid and I do thank you for your time. If I drink stimulants at this hour I would never sleep tonight.” The stranger leaned back in the overstuffed chair and studied the Man of Science. It was not so much his black penetrating eyes, as the fact that the stranger seemed to search his soul. There was something slightly other-worldly about the stranger. Not malevolent but other worldly.

The Man of Science broke the uneasy silence.” So,” he began, “what can I do for you?”

“I have read of your work,” he replied, “and am fascinated by what you have done. Impressive, I hasten to say. You solved the mystery of life and all.”

“Yes,’ the scientist replied, trying not to appear too haughty, “with these four bottles and that apparatus over there,” he said pointing at the chemical synthesizer and the computer with which he booted up the chemical brew that created his life form, “I can indeed produce life. I have done it and can prove it. I have taken pictures of this life form I have created. The only thing that stands between this simple artificial life form and Mankind is time. The right mix and a few billion years and this little life form ends up our brother our sister, a dog or a cat, monkey or a tree. Left to the vagaries of time, happenstance, and the chaos of nature, it could develop into anything. This right here is the genesis of life.”

“How profound, mysterious, and amazing that you—a mere human being, though brilliant I might add—were able to solve this mystery when for thousands of years mankind has pondered the meaning and origins of life and could never, until now, figure it out.”

“Well,” the scientist replied, doing his best to remain humble in the face of his unquestionably brilliant discovery, “I am rather humbled by this all and grateful that I was able to stumble onto this, really.”

“Is it, however, a bit of a stretch to suggest that you have solved the mystery of life?” the stranger asked politely. “Even Diane Sawyer scoffed at this idea on television the other day.”

“Not so much I think,” the Man of Science replied, miffed by skepticism of his guest, “after all, this does explain that which was necessary to create life and all that we see could easily have been derived from this. Indeed this could easily be, and I daresay was, the source of all we survey.”

“And the world as we know it?”

“Created by Man of course—the highest form of life and the end product of the process I demonstrated with these four bottles. It was inevitable that, in time, eons ago, the right combination of chemicals were charged by lightning or static electricity and led to the creation of simple life forms, which in time led to you and me and all we survey. All quite logical if you think about it. I mean given time and circumstance and the accident of fate, it was bound to happen. I just stumbled across the secret in my lab.”

The stranger listened in respectful silence as the scientist held forth on his theory. The hour was late and the stranger had to take his leave. But something troubled the stranger. He needed an answer from the Man of Science.

“I so much appreciate your time and your explanation. What you have done is indeed amazing, the implications for science are inestimable, and your work is truly impressive. Your discovery has the potential to shake the foundations of science, religion, and history. What you have done may cause us to change textbooks, discard our religious teachings, and rethink how we got here and where we came from…”

“Well, thank you but…”

“…yet I wonder if you could answer one question for me,” the stranger inquired.

“Of course I will try,’ said the Man of Science.

“Would you indulge me by stepping outside for a moment?” the stranger inquired.

Puzzled, the scientist agreed. Besides, a breath of fresh air on this beautiful starlit night would be welcome before he turned in. “Of course.”

The two stepped outside, bathed in the silver light of a magnificent full moon. Above them shone a universe of countless celestial bodies stretching across a sky with no end and no beginning.

“So?” the Man of Science asked of the stranger.

With that, the stranger leaned his head back. His face to the sky, and arms outstretched, he traced a wide sweeping arc across the heavens with his hands, and yelled to the Man of Science: “Can you create that with your four bottles?” Not waiting for an answer, the stranger melted into the night, leaving the Man of Science alone, staring skyward.

A billion stars and a billion solar systems, stretching forever, with no end and no beginning—a creation so vast that the human mind cannot fathom its expanse—waited for the answer that never came. And the Man of Science returned to his lab with his four bottles, and booted up another batch of chemical brew.


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