Biochemist publishes a paper solving the mystery of life, but no one understands it

Case Western Reserve University biochemist Erik Andrulis has just published a paper about a discovery that goes way beyond the RNA he usually researches. He claims he's discovered the secret to life itself - and it all has to do with energy-spirit things he calls gyres. His 105-page paper is called "Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life," and you can download the whole thing for free from the peer-reviewed journal Life. The problem is that even sympathetic readers found the paper incomprehensible and (worse for scientists) untestable.

Photo by James Sugar for National Geographic.

Nevertheless, Case Western decided to send out a press release about the paper to international science news service Eurekalert. In it, they wrote something that sounds a bit like an early script treatment for Avatar:

The earth is alive, asserts a revolutionary scientific theory of life emerging from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. The trans-disciplinary theory demonstrates that purportedly inanimate, non-living objects—for example, planets, water, proteins, and DNA—are animate, that is, alive . . . To test his paradigm, Dr. Andrulis designed bidirectional flow diagrams that both depict and predict the dynamics of energy and matter. While such diagrams may be foreign to some scientists, they are standard reaction notation to chemists, biochemists, and biologists. Dr. Andrulis has used his theory to successfully predict and identify a hidden signature of RNA biogenesis in his laboratory at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He is now applying the gyromodel to unify and explain the evolution and development of human beings.

As people started pondering that incredibly strange assertion, the story picked up speed. Late last week, journalists began buzzing about the bizarre paper that purported to explain all of life using "gyraxioms."

In a wry article about Andrulis' work, Ars Technica's John Timmer summed the paper up:

The basic idea is that everything, from subatomic particles to living systems, is based on helical systems the author calls "gyres," which transform matter, energy, and information. These transformations then determine the properties of various natural systems, living and otherwise. What are these gyres? It's really hard to say; even Andrulis admits that they're just "a straightforward and non-mathematical core model" (although he seems to think that's a good thing). Just about everything can be derived from this core model; the author cites "major phenomena including, but not limited to, quantum gravity, phase transitions of water, why living systems are predominantly CHNOPS (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur), homochirality of sugars and amino acids, homeoviscous adaptation, triplet code, and DNA mutations."

Just in case you get confused, Andrulis includes an enormous glossary, including these choice entries:

Alternagyre: A gyrosystem whose gyrapex is not triquantal
Dextragyre: A right-handed gyre or gyromodel
Focagyre: A gyre that is the focal point of analysis or discussion
Gyradaptor: The gyre singularity-a quantum-that exerts all forces on the gyrosystem
Gyrapex: The relativistically high potential, excited, unstable, learning state of a particle
Gyraxiom: A fact, condition, principle, or rule that constrains and defines the theoretical framework
Gyre: The spacetime shape or path of a particle or group of particles; a quantum

Nobody who's read the paper seems entirely sure whether it's a hoax, an eccentric intellectual noodle, or an unfortunate symptom of mental illness. But one thing seems certain: It isn't science.

Case Western quickly took their press release off the medical school website, though you can still see it on Eurekalert. Ivan Oransky wrote about it on Retraction Watch, noting that he'd asked the medical school's communications officer Liz Lear why they promoted the paper and then deleted all references to it. Lear said:

We have been evaluating our processes regarding media outreach and elected to remove the release from our website while we assess our policies surrounding promotional communications.

So, it sounds like Lear and her colleagues are still just "assessing" the weirdness of Andrulis' paper too.

This is one of those K-Pax situations, where you'll always be left wondering if maybe the guy with the funny glint in his eye might have been right about the aliens. Or the gyradaptors. Then again, maybe he was wrong. I'm not sure which is worse.