To b3, or not to b3, that is
The quotation has to do with the difficulty for life on earth (or elsewhere for that matter) evolving out of other non-organic elements. The whole point is to realize how rare it is to form a self-reproductive cell (DNA) out of ordinary chemicals. Some people have said that it is like having all the parts of an airplane lying around in a valley, and expect them to be assembled perfectly into a functioning airplane just by the wind flowing them around. As you realize the possibilities are very close to zero.
Another argument that I prefer has to do with monkeys and Shakespeare. Suppose you put a monkey in from of a typing machine, and the monkey starts typing random text. Given an infinite amount of time the monkey eventually will reproduce at some point the exact works of Shakespeare. It is very very improbable, but this will happen, even if it takes a billion years. Or, you can have billions of monkeys typing randomly and expect one of them to reproduce the works of Shakespeare sometime sooner.
As it turns out, reproducing even one single complete and correct phrase has a chance of about 10^(-58). That is there is a 1/24 chance to get a letter right, to the power of the number of letters in the sentence. This is orders of magnitude bigger than the age of the universe already, so imagine what happens when we talk about the full works of Shakespeare.
However in early earth there is a huge number of molecules that are working at the same time and have a chance to produce life. This is like having many many typing in parallel. The quotation refers to one of these monkeys. She wasn't lucky enough to get the exact reproduction of Shakespeare's famous phrase, but she's quite close. Eventually another monkey will have better luck.
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©2004 Themos Kallos