Laboratory produced life

Faust homunculi
a 19th century engraving of Wagner, a famed sorcerer's former student, creating Homunculus in the chemical laboratory using fire (or heat) and some type of chemical apparatus, as described in German polymath Johann Goethe's 1832 Faust part II. [5]
In science, laboratory produced life or synthesis method refers to any of a number of attempts, hopes, or objectives of producing, creating, or synthesizing life or an aspect of life under controlled experimental laboratory conditions.

In terms of classification, the synthesis method, according to American quantum physicist Michael Brooks, wherein one attempts to “build something that is ‘alive’ from scratch”, such as by taking certain chemicals and putting them together in ways that might make them alive, is classified as the traditional second option of ways to unravel the essential nature of life; the first being the trace method, i.e. to trace the tree of life or the mechanism of life back in time to the point where it all started and where all that existed was chemistry or chemicals; the third being the definition method, where one sits down and tries to think up a suitable definition that distinguishes living matter from non-living matter. Brooks notes that the third method is the most well-trodden, but also the one widely admitted to be a dead end. [1]

The hope or object of ‘producing life in the laboratory’, according a 1946 review by Belgian-born American thermodynamicist Alfred Ubbelohde, has a long and somewhat disreputable ancestry. [2]

The earliest idea, supposedly, traces to the alchemical experiments and theories of Swiss-born Austrian chemist Paracelsus and his homunculi or “receipt to make a man without conjunction”. [3]

Ubbelohde cites the literary examples of English writer Mary Shelley’s 1818 ‘Frankenstein’ (depicted below) as well as German polymath Johann Goethe’s 1832 Dr. Faust and his little chemical-laboratory synthesized character ‘homunculus’ (depicted adjacent)

The recent idea of ‘robots’ or artificial life, as the subject is called in modern terms (or even the physical science based premise of physical intelligence, as the US government has recently attempted to formulate), is another example. [4]

In Shelley’s version, she was said to have been inspired to outline her scientifically created life fiction/non-fiction version by both her knowledge Paracelsus and the recently published 1791 dead frog leg twitching electrical experiments of Italian physician Luigi Galvani.

In his talk with Eckermann, Goethe is supposed to have said that Homunculus is virtually the same as the Leibnizian entelechy or monad, according to John Williams. [12]

Galvani frog legs 1971Frankenstein 1831
An illustration from a book by Italian Luigi Galvani showing him conducting experiments in 1791 of the ability of electricity to produce movement in dead matter (what he termed as "animal electricity"); a further perusal of his 1771 discovery that dead frog legs can be made to twitch when connected to an metal-junction type of electrochemical circuit (frog legs suspended by copper hooks on an iron rail, the arc or switch made by touching a scalpel of the foot to the rail). [6] These experiments served as the basis to Mary Shelley's famous 1818 story of Frankenstein. An 1831 Illustration, by Theodor von Holst, of the laboratory creation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 story of Frankenstein, a scientifically-created living human made by surgically re-connecting the severed dead parts of various corpses and then reanimating the body with electricity. [7]

Romanian historian Radu Florescu notes that Shelley’s father, William Godwin, and her husband, Percy Shelley were both quite familiar with the lives and works of alchemists like Paracelsus and others. Florescu also suggests that Johann Conrad Dippel, an alchemist born in Castle Frankenstein whom he believes may have been the inspiration for Victor Frankenstein, was a student of Dr. David Christianus.

In Goethe’s version, as depicted above, the famed sorcerer's former student, Wagner, create a homunculus, who then carries out extended conversations with Mephistopheles as well as travels with him to the Pharsalian Fields to save Faust.

In 1952 the famous Urey-Miller experiment was conducted in which the so-called proto-life chemicals were synthesized in a beaker over several days via the action of electrical sparks.
Urey-Miller experiment
American biochemist Stanley Miller demonstrating the outline of his famous 1952 spark-creating life experiment.

In origin, in circa 1950, American planetary chemist Harold Urey, a former student of Gilbert Lewis, speculated that the early terrestrial atmosphere was probably composed of ammonia, methane, and hydrogen. To test this hypothesis, Urey then directed his new graduate student Stanley Miller, a newly-forming biochemist, to see if an atmospheric of such mixture is exposed to electric sparks and to water, whether or not it can interact to produce amino acids, commonly called the "building blocks of life", which are precursor units needed to make proteins.

Laboratory measured life
In the theme of laboratory produced life, there have been a number of noted attempt to measure life (vs death) quantitatively in controlled laboratory conditions.

One of the more famous experiments is Italian physician Francesco Redi’s series of experiments, published in 1668 as Esperienze Intorno alla Generazione degl'Insetti (Experiments on the Generation of Insects) which is regarded as one of the first steps in refuting "spontaneous generation", a theory also known as Aristotelian abiogenesis. At the time, prevailing wisdom was that maggots formed naturally from rotting meat. In his experiment, Redi took six jars, which he divided in two groups of three: in the first jar of each group, he put an unknown object; in the second, a dead fish; in the last, a raw chunk of veal. Redi took the first group of three, and covered the tops with fine gauze so that only air could get into it. He left the other group of jars open. After several days, he saw maggots appear on the objects in the open jars, on which flies had been able to land, but not in the gauze-covered jars.

soul weighing
A 2011 artistic rendition of soul weighing, i.e. of a person's soul or spirit leaving their body at the point of death, such as would have been conceived by those as King Charles II (c.1670) or Douglas MacDougall (1900) in their death weighing experiments. [11]

He continued his experiments by capturing the maggots and waiting for them to metamorphose, which they did, becoming flies. Also, when dead flies or maggots were put in sealed jars with dead animals or veal, no maggots appeared, but when the same thing was done with living flies, maggots did. [10] The earliest outline of this ideology of quantitatively weighing the state of life as compared the state of death traces to the circa 2,500BC Ra-theology based conception of the weighting of the soul after death in the judgment hall, depictions of which abound on the tombs of ancient Egypt.

Thermodynamic soul weighing
See also: soul snow
The first attempt to prove or disprove this life-death weight distinction was the circa 1670 famous weighing problem of King Charles II who in question of whether 'life' can be weighed, compared the weight of a live and a dead fish. [8] Charles II, the founder of the Royal society, initiated the problem to solve the so-called supposed finding that a dead fish weighed more than a live fish.

A variation of this experiment was then again carried out with a dying person in 1901 by American physician Douglas MacDougall, who theorized that if the soul exists it "must exist as a space-occupying body" and thus have a measurable mass; his measurements found that the average "soul substance" weighs 3/4th of an ounce (or 21 grams). This value soon entered urban legend.

In 1905, German-born American physicist Albert Einstein introduced his famous mass-energy equivalence formula (E = mc²), which showed that mass and energy were equivalent. In 1939, it was noted that Einstein's formula implied that a small amount of mass might be converted into a large amount of energy or came to be known as "nuclear energy" and this prompted the famous "Einstein-Szilard letter" (written by Leo Szilard), which led to the Manhattan Project (1942) and thus to the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These showings instilled the possibility that the soul might be related to nuclear energy, in some round-about way.

The pros and cons of this premise was touched, in terms of mass converting into nuclear energy by both Belgian-born American thermodynamicist Alfred Ubbelohde (1946), in verbal thermodynamics discussion, and American chemical engineer and physician Gerard Nahum (1998), in formulaic thermodynamic discussion as well as proposed experimental outline.
Test tube baby (1978)
1978 Time cover stimulate by the birth of the world's first test tube baby, Louise Brown.

Test tubers and cloning
A variation of laboratory produced life, although not as famous as the philosopher's stone quest for the synthesis of the so-called "life" from the so-called "non-life", is the process of test tube babies or in vitro fertilization (sperm and egg joined outside of the body), the first human created via this method being the 1978 Louise Brown, and cloning (creation starting with a somatic cell), the first animal creating via this method being the 1996 sheep named “Dolly”.

1. Brooks, Michael. (2008). 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: the Most Baffling Mysteries of Our Time (ch. 5: Life, pgs. 69-82). DoubleDay.
2. Ubbelohde, Alfred René. (1947). Time and Thermodynamics (pg. 94). Oxford University Press.
3. Homunculus – Wikipedia.
4. (a) Goethe, Johann. (1832). Faust, Part 2 (pgs. #). Publisher.
(b) Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy – Wikipedia.
5. Faust image 19th century – Wikipedia.
6. (a) Anon. (2011). Time: 100 Ideas that Changed the World: Histories Greatest Breakthroughs, Inventions, and Theories (#45: Electricity Crackles to Life, pgs. 64-65). Time, Inc.
(b) Thims, Libb. (2007). Human Chemistry (Volume One) (pgs. 214, 248). Morrisville, NC: LuLu.
7. (a) Frankenstein – Wikipedia.
(b) Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818.
8. (a) Ubbelohde, Alfred René. (1947). Time and Thermodynamics (pg. 100). Oxford University Press.
(b) Charles II of England (1630-1685) – Wikipedia.
9. Fisher, Len. (2004). Weighing the Soul: the Evolution of Scientific Beliefs (pg. 6). Weidenfeld & Nocolson.
10. Francesco Redi – Wikipedia.
11. Blog post (2011) –
12. Seung, T.K. (2006). Goethe, Nietzsche, and Wagner: their Spinozan Epics of Love and Power (pg. 67). Lexington Books.

Further reading
● Nielsen, Torben H. and Berg, Siv F. (2002). “Goethe’s Homunculus and Shelley’s Monster: On the Romantic Prototypes of Modern Biotechnology.” Article/Chapter.
● Berg, Siv F. (2008). “Artificial Creation of Human Beings – Three Cultural Prototypes: Goethe’s Homunculus, Shelly’s Monster, and Huxley’s Creatures”, Talk, Nov. 12, Cambridge University.
● Ball, Philip. (2011). Unnatural: the Heretical Idea of Making People (pg. 3). Vintage Books.

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