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Intelligent space dinosaurs: How worried should we be?

An eminent chemist concluded an article in an academic journal with a fanciful note, positing the existence of advanced dinosaurs on other worlds. How plausible is his assertion? 


A girl plays with an exhibit at a dinosaur exhibition in the botanic garden of Volcji Potok, Slovenia.

Bor Slana/Reuters

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It happens to every writer: You've penned a nice article, checked your facts, and made sure all the commas are in the right place. Now you just need to come up with a punchy ending that ties it all together. 

For Columbia University chemist Ronald Breslow and his journal article about the origins of organic molecules on Earth, that ending invoked extraterrestrial dinosaurs. 

Professor Breslow, it should be noted, is no crackpot. He holds Columbia's highest academic rank, served as president of the American Chemical Society, is a recipient of the National Medal of Science and many other top honors, and is generally regarded as an all-around Eminent Scientist. 

But none of this stopped him from embarking on a flight of fancy in the last paragraph of his article for the Journal of the American Chemical Society titled "Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth," which reads:

An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L α‐methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.

Breslow was writing about a topic that has long puzzled scientists. Pretty much all of the proteins, sugars, and genetic material on Earth exists in one of two possible orientations, or chiralities, as they are called. With a few small exceptions, all of the amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – are "left handed." Almost all sugars are "right handed."


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