My story “Looking-Glass Milk” is now available to read online at Scribblers and Ink Spillers, as part of their Crystal Codices series. They initially published this story back in November, charging $1 for a downloadable e-book and $2 plus shipping for a paper book. The print version is still $2, but now the electronic version is free.
This is one of the few science fiction stories I’ve written. Two organic chemists courageously set out to save the lives of an imperiled landing crew, and to discover the answer to a mystery that has perplexed scientists since long before the dawn of space travel….
For any in the audience who are organic chemists (like me), the scientific mystery at the heart of the story is that of biological chirality: why do most chiral natural products on Earth have the same handedness (if you don’t know what this means, and are curious, go read the story, it’s explained there!)? There’s actually a line in the story that references some work that I did as an undergraduate research associate way back in the early 90s. Some chemists at a German university reported that you could get a chemical reaction that usually gives equal amounts of two products that are mirror images of each other to give more of one by doing the reaction in a magnetic field. It was theorized that this might be relevant to the origin of “biological chirality”; that early reactions taking place on Earth before the emergence of even single-celled life forms might have been “pushed” towards one product by the influence of Earth’s magnetic field.
Later, the post-doc involved in the research confessed to doping the reactions with one of the two products, so that it would look like the reaction had given an excess of that material. The whole incident is sort of the “cold fusion” of the organic chemistry world. However, before people knew for sure that the results had been faked, my summer research adviser (John Scheffer at UBC, with whom I later did graduate work) thought it would be a neat project for me to attempt to duplicate the results. (As most of you probably know, when a scientist publishes startling results in a paper, and people aren’t sure whether they believe those results, scientists in that field around the world try to follow the procedures given in the paper, to see whether they get the same results, doing it exactly the same way – if they don’t, there’s obviously a problem, whether it’s deliberate scientific misconduct or sloppy documentation of the original researcher’s work.)
I was not able to duplicate the results (fortunately!), and then the fraud was confessed, and I moved on to something else for the rest of the summer. However, the experience got me thinking about the whole issue of biological chirality, and how it had potentially arisen, and whether organic molecules on other planets would also have all their amino acids and sugars having the same “handedness” … ever since, I’ve wanted to write a science fiction story about this question. And I finally got around to it.
So, Breitmayer et al. in Germany may not have answered the question of why chiral organic molecules here on Earth mostly have the same orientation around the stereogenic centers. But at least they inspired a science fiction story.