In January 1955, Homer Jacobson, a chemistry professor at Brooklyn College, published a paper called “Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life” in American Scientist, the journal of Sigma Xi, the scientific honor society.Link.
In it, Dr. Jacobson speculated on the chemical qualities of earth in Hadean time, billions of years ago when the planet was beginning to cool down to the point where, as Dr. Jacobson put it, “one could imagine a few hardy compounds could survive.”
Nobody paid much attention to the paper at the time, he said in a telephone interview from his home in Tarrytown, N.Y. But today it is winning Dr. Jacobson acclaim that he does not want — from creationists who cite it as proof that life could not have emerged on earth without divine intervention.
So after 52 years, he has retracted it.
The retraction came about when, on a whim, Dr. Jacobson ran a search for his name on Google. At age 84 and after 20 years of retirement, “I wanted to see, what have I done in all these many years?” he said. “It was vanity. What can I tell you?”
He found many entries relating to his work on compounds called polymers; on information theory, a branch of mathematics involving statistics and probability; and other subjects. But others were for creationist sites that have taken up his 1955 paper as scientific support for their views.
Darwinismrefuted.com, for example, says Dr. Jacobson’s paper “undermines the scenario that life could have come about by accident.” Another creationist site, Evolution-facts.org, says his findings mean that “within a few minutes, all the various parts of the living organism had to make themselves out of sloshing water,” an impossible feat without a supernatural hand.
“Ouch,” Dr. Jacobson said. “It was hideous.”
That is not because he objects to religion, he said. Though he was raised in a secular household, he said, “Religion is O.K. as long as you don’t fly in the face of facts.” After all, he said, no one can disprove the existence of God. But Dr. Jacobson said he was dismayed to think that people might use his work in what he called “malignant” denunciations of Darwin.
Things grew worse when he reread his paper, he said, because he discovered errors. One related to what he called a “conjecture” about whether amino acids, the basic building blocks of protein and a crucial component of living things, could form naturally.
“Under the circumstances I mention, just a bunch of chemicals sitting together, no,” he said. “Because it takes energy to go from the things that make glycine to glycine, glycine being the simplest amino acid.”
There were potential sources of energy, he said. So to say that nothing much would happen in its absence “is totally beside the point.” “And that is a point I did not make,” he added.
Another assertion in the paper, about what would have had to occur simultaneously for living matter to arise, is just plain wrong, he said, adding, “It was a dumb mistake, but nobody ever caught me on it.”
Vance Ferrell, who said he put together the material posted on Evolution-facts.org, said if the paper had been retracted he would remove the reference to it. Mr. Ferrell said he had no way of knowing what motivated Dr. Jacobson, but said that if scientists “look like they are pro-creationist they can get into trouble.”
“There is an embarrassment,” Mr. Ferrell said.
Dr. Jacobson conceded that was the case. He wrote in his retraction letter, “I am deeply embarrassed to have been the originator of such misstatements.”
It is not unusual for scientists to publish papers and, if they discover evidence that challenges them, to announce they were wrong. The idea that all scientific knowledge is provisional, able to be challenged and overturned, is one thing that separates matters of science from matters of faith.
So Dr. Jacobson’s retraction is in “the noblest tradition of science,” Rosalind Reid, editor of American Scientist, wrote in its November-December issue, which has Dr. Jacobson’s letter.
His letter shows, Ms. Reid wrote, “the distinction between a scientist who cannot let error stand, no matter the embarrassment of public correction,” and people who “cling to dogma.”