Life on Earth began in Mica

071210-life-origins_big It’s the sparkle that gives life to my clay work and might have helped bring about life on earth. Mica is a flaky mineral that organizes naturally in layer upon layer in thin sheets. That feature is what allows me to create controllable chatoyant patterns in polymer clay and may well have provided enough support, shelter, and energy to allow a primordial soup of basic molecules to evolve into the more complex molecules that are the building blocks of life on earth. That at least is the theory of Helen Hansma, a biologist from the University of California at Santa Barbara, who spoke recently about her ideas to the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, which was held in Washington D.C.

“The Hansma mica hypothesis proposes that the narrow confined spaces between the thin layers of mica could have provided exactly the right conditions for the rise of the first biomolecules –– effectively creating cells without membranes.”

“Some think that the first biomolecules were simple proteins, some think they were RNA, or ribonucleic acid,” said Hansma. “Both proteins and RNA could have formed in between the mica sheets.”

The whole idea of self organization fascinates me and is something I engage when making my beads. Patterns are created by repetition. The processes I use to make two dimensional patterns and three dimensional structures take the clay through an evolution, whereby several simple repetitive procedures, such as carving the clay with a blade, spinning it around and around on a lathe, or folding it layer over layer, are allowed to interact with each other. I like to see my involvement in this process as mostly that of an observer.

While it is true that I make choices guiding the process from start to finish, I make those choices from a deliberately limited range of options with the intention of exploring an essentially self governing system. For example, when I create a lathe turned bead, my options are to grow the bead through addition of clay that is colored or textured in a variety of ways, or to shrink it by by cutting clay away as it spins around. Ultimately, nature will experiment with any possible configuration. When the options are constrained, then the likelihood of recognizable patterns being generated in the material environment increases.

In the primordial soup and sandwich model, the options were limited physically by one nanometer thick mica walls, which were separated by only one half nanometer from each other; chemically by the preponderance of potassium which held the mica together (at concentrations similar to those found in our cells) and sodium rich sea water (quite like our own salty blood); as well as by a kinetic energy environment dominated by the repetition of simple binary procedures, specifically the ebb and flow of heat from day to night and the up down motion of the ocean waves. Together these factors form a dynamic system. Whether the ordered results form a set of beads or single celled slime, it makes me feel in touch with the greater miracle of being to explore the process.