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From Soup to Snowballs

June 02, 1997

The grand projects of modern cosmology, like mapping the moons of Jupiter, are driven by the notion that we have mastered the basics of our own planet, therefore it's time to study more exotic climes. But Iowa physicist Louis Frank's recent discovery that about 40,000 giant snowballs from outer space strike the upper atmosphere each day suggests that our claims of mastery may have been premature.

The previously unrecognized house-sized snowballs, which evaporate in the atmosphere, also cast new doubt on a theory most of us learned in school: that life emerged by chance as lightning struck the young Earth's primordial soup, helping build complex molecules.

Mainstream scientists have been questioning the soup theory since the 1980s, largely because it fails to explain the origin of the fundamental building blocks of life, nucleic acids. Frank's evidence suggests one way in which nucleic acids may have arrived on Earth: encased in cosmic snowballs.

Thus, if the new theorizing proves correct, we may owe our lives not to some sudden, Frankensteinian bolt of lightning but rather to a more gentle rain of comets that allowed nucleic acids to make their way from somewhere afar to a place we call home.

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