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Interview: Paul Rimmer, astronomer and chemist

01 September 2023

‘Thank God, I had a profound religious experience at the top of a hill outside Fort Collins, Colorado’

There is a lot of chemistry in space. This is trivially true, in that everything is in space; so any chemistry would be chemistry in space — but more deeply true in terms of the rich variety of chemistry that takes place in different environments in space.

From soon after the Big Bang, the de-ionization of the universe means that helium becomes a neutral species before hydrogen, and these will react to form the universe’s first molecule, HeH+. Molecular clouds lead to the formation of stars. The stars have disks of gas and dust around them, rich in complex chemistry, and these disks become unstable; planets form somehow, and there’s rich chemistry on the planets. Space and chemistry are linked all the way.

One big place where chemistry and astronomy are linked is what the light of the star can do to chemistry in local environments on young rocky planets. They can knock electrons off anions, and those electrons can do all sorts of fascinating chemistry, converting the molecule hydrogen cyanide into many of the building blocks of life.

I enjoyed camping with my dad. We’d go camping in the Rocky Mountains. You could see the stars so clearly in the night sky, the whole Milky Way opening up in front of you. I fell in love with space there.

John Sutherland’s work, and his kind mentoring of me, inspired my current research probably more than any other. Other people who gave me a philosophical framework are Plato, Pascal, and Spinoza.

The question that keeps me up at night is how non-life can become life, and where, and how hard is it to do. When I was younger, I was more interested in the origin of the universe. Now, it’s origin of life.

I spend a lot of time doing routine chemistry, measuring how fast simple reactions go, and what they make, products that lead to the molecules that life uses, and products that appear to lead nowhere. This work will determine whether certain chemistry can happen without a chemist being there to carry it out. That’s the kind of chemistry that must have happened at origins of life, naturally timed to work. Amazingly, over and over, the less that I mess with the chemistry to try to make it work, what emerges without my interference is often far more profound and brilliant than something I could have ever thought up on my own.

The most interesting development in my field is this idea of a toy model for life, and the reactions discovered in the lab that are driven by light, that keep leading to new and ever more complex products and insights into the very first steps of life’s origins.

Can we make a good link between what happens in the lab and what happens on exoplanets? Can we set up the framework to make predictions about origins and early evolution of life from what’s found on the surface of Mars, in the clouds of Venus, under the ice of Enceladus and Europa, in the methane lakes of Titan, and in atmospheres of exoplanets?

The Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe [LCLU] is meant to address two questions: the origins of life, and the ubiquity of life in the universe. It involves people from science and the humanities, because science is first and foremost a human endeavour. Answering these questions requires human engagement and mutual understanding, cultivating a diversity of viewpoints and opinions, ideally limited only by the results of experiments rather than our own prejudices. You might catch the echo of Blaise Pascal right there.

I run the coffee meetings. I’m also trying to bring together a lab to explore the chemical reactions and rates. I’ve been enriched far more by the LCLU than I have enriched it, but it’s a typical relationship for young researchers starting their own independent labs and groups.

I’ll need to reflect more on your question of how the different methodologies of science and humanities can mesh fruitfully in a research context before being able to answer it well. I don’t feel competent to answer with concrete examples, at least in the field of origins, or search for extra-terrestrial life. There’s some fascinating overlap with Günter Wächtershäuser and Karl Popper. Also with Steve Benner and Paul Feyerabend. There’s also this amazing literature and art inspired by thinking about aliens unlike us, like Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud novel.

But these are solidly in the actual practice area, not the theoretical approaches area. One place which may have been fruitful on that level might be Sean Carroll’s new professorship in Natural Philosophy, even if I disagree with a lot of his conclusions.

If you mean more specifically around this question of origins of life and search for life elsewhere in the universe, it’s been attempted a handful of times, but recently things have really taken off with the Simons Collaboration, the Harvard Origins Cluster, the Origins Centre in the Netherlands, now this new Origins Federation, Origins and Emergence of Life projects in Munich, Georgia Tech, McMaster in Canada, ELSI in Japan.

As far as I know, the LCLU is the only collaboration that has taken this new approach to origins of life and the search for life in a way that also incorporates science and humanities more broadly. It will take time to see whether this approach will succeed.

I was born in Denver, Colorado, to loving parents. They were serious about Jesus, but not so much about church. We often spent Sundays camping in the mountains.

I’m the husband of one wife, the father of two children. We live outside Cambridge, and I cycle and ride the train into and out of Cambridge every day with my younger son. On weekends, we enjoy gardening, walking through town, playing board games, watching science fiction and silly sitcoms and animated features, reading.

I’m sure I experienced the reflected love of God in the love of my parents from before I have memories. Maybe due to my neuro-atypical way of perceiving the world, I didn’t have any direct experience of God. No sensus divinitatis. I’m spiritually blind in that way. But, thank God, I had a profound religious experience at the top of a hill outside Fort Collins, Colorado, where I felt for the first time the presence of God. I had another experience like this at St Andrews.

I didn’t know what to do with the experience for some time. Then I became a Catholic. Now I have an uneasy, mostly friendly relationship with the Catholic Church. I see them as the God experts, much like I see the IPCC as climate experts. It doesn’t mean I always agree with them, but I think people should probably trust them more than they trust me about those sorts of things.

Lacking a sensus divinitatis is frustrating. It means I end up wandering around in the dark, and sometimes stub my toe spiritually. I often have to trust other people to guide me. It also means I tend to hone my other senses more, and might be one reason I went into science.

I learn more about God from the way he made the world, and it’s a way to commune with him, through the faculties I can more fully access. Working with UV, I’m working with something that I can’t see, that’s there, and responsible for so much of the chemistry.

It makes me angry how people mistreat children and people with disabilities.

A hug from my children makes me happy, and the incredible love of my wife. Christmas. Quiet in a forested area on in the mountains. When a really nice new result shows up in the lab.

I love the sound of thunder and rain in the mountains. This made me think of a smell, actually: petrichor. You smell it before rain there. It’s electric.

I have a great deal of hope for the future. Steven Pinker’s argument that most things are improving provides a strong empirical basis for the world mostly getting better. Ultimately, and beyond any empirical evidence, my hope is summed up in the phrase written on the cake after the Paschal divine liturgy at a church I used to attend: “Jesus Wins”.

I most often pray the rosary and Morning Prayer from the BCP. What those contain is what I most often pray for. When I offer personal prayer, maybe only once or twice a month — it’s hard to talk to God extemporaneously when you don’t feel that he’s there at all — I tend to pray for my children, or someone’s health, or for continued blessing for myself and my family.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with St Paul, or my dad.

Dr Rimmer was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The views expressed here are his own, and and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.


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