The Origins of Life squib

My brother's death, where to find God, and a startling discovery of how life began on earth. by Charles Mudede

Before I left on a three-week trip this summer, I had drinks with my brother Kudzai at Nacho Borracho. We sat at the bar. I ordered a glass of white wine; he had a Diet Coke. When the drinks were served, we clinked glasses in honor of his big achievement: He had just quit his low-paying job and was about to begin classes at Seattle University's law school. That day, Wednesday, June 12, he had purchased two very thick and expensive lawbooks. He was ready. I was amazed.

For much of his life, Kudzai had not really done that much. He strummed the guitar now and then. He started a couple of bands. He got married and then divorced. Sometimes he went to the gym. Sometimes he didn't go to the gym. The hours he spent watching European football or playing the FIFA video game seemed infinite in my eyes. Kudzai was not, however, a sad person or anything like that. Indeed, he had a great sense of humor, and he seemed perfectly content to be going nowhere and not doing much.

Then, out of the blue, he decided, at the age of 36, to take the LSAT. He studied hard, he passed the test with colors that were almost flying, and he was admitted to the law program, to my complete surprise.

It all happened so quickly. One day, there is this Kudzai playing video games and binge-watching Game of Thrones; the next day, there is this other and wholly new Kudzai not drinking and working long hours to save money. He even moved into my house with me to cut costs. In two years, he would earn a master of legal studies degree. My little brother Kudzai, the lawyer? The transformation, the focus, the commitment to something tangible—it was unbelievable. We clinked glasses again and again.

After the drinks, we took the light rail home. He sat next to me on the train and talked about this and that. As always, he made me laugh to the point of tears.

I returned to Seattle on July 4. Two days later, I received an odd text from Kudzai.

He wrote that he had collapsed while walking to Columbia City Station. I called him. He answered. Where was he? He was staying at a friend's house. Why? Because he could not get up the stairs at my house. I went to his friend's place, which was not far from mine.

Kudzai answered the door. I followed him to the living room. He walked very slowly and had great difficulty breathing. He said things that perplexed me. How can you get so sick so quickly? There was a thick lawbook on the table.

The next morning, he took an Uber to Harborview Medical Center. Kudzai was determined to stay there until the doctors had solved his illness.

A week later, I received a call from a doctor at Harborview. He wanted to have a meeting. I arrived at 3 p.m., entered the room, and looked at my brother. He was sitting upright in a hospital bed. An oxygen mask on his face. Eyes filled with fear. He knew and I knew that no good news was coming our way.

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Ten minutes later, the room was packed with seven or so doctors from different departments who had been working to determine the type and extent of his illness. Four of them sat on chairs. The main doctor, young and handsome, sat directly in front of my brother. I was behind Kudzai. And in the window behind me rose the towers of downtown Seattle.

"Kudzai, I want to be very frank with you," said the doctor, looking at him with eyes that did not blink. "You have a cancer that can't be cured. It originated in either your stomach or your pancreas. We are not sure yet, and there is even a chance we may never know because it has spread so widely. There is now a cloud of cancer in your lungs—"

My brother broke into a wail I had never heard from him before: "Nooooo! God, noooo. God. Nooooo. Nooooo!"

"How much time does he have?" I asked, as my brother fell back into a weeping, bawling, wailing, totally devastated heap.

The doctor, who appeared shaken by my brother's unrestrained discharge of terror/confusion/anguish, looked up at me and said: "If it is pancreatic cancer, at the most 12 months. If it is stomach, 16 months." My brother, upon hearing this, wailed louder again and again. I'm having a hard time describing his cries because they were indescribable. Why was he forsaken? He just could not believe it. It was impossible. He was only 37.

"The reason we did not catch it earlier is precisely because he is so young. These cancers usually occur in old people," said the doctor.

Thirty minutes later, I was alone with my brother and my son, who had brought two bottles of wine to the hospital. My brother was in a state of shock. What could he/I/we say now? We had never prepared for this moment. We had never talked about death, or the meaning of life. In our entire time together (in Zimbabwe, where he was born; in Seattle, where he moved in 1998), I cannot recall one conversation with Kudzai about God.


On August 4, a University of Washington theoretical physicist, Ann Nelson, slipped on a hiking path in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (a glacier-carved terrain with more than 700 lakes) and fell, headfirst, to her death. Her husband and two of her friends watched how the 61 years she spent on earth came to an end in a gully. Her body was recovered on August 5.

Nelson, considered to be one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of our time, specialized in something called CP violation, which is a violation of CP symmetry (or charge conjugation parity symmetry).

To put it simply: There should be no stuff in our universe. I should not be here, nor my cats, nor the pear tree in my garden, nor the clouds in the sky, nor the moon, the stars, the clouds of gas and dust. The universe should be as it was in the beginning: a smooth radiation of light. Why? Because in the normal run of things, matter is annihilated by antimatter.

In the normal universe, "to be" is annihilated by "not to be." But for reasons that are still a mystery to even the deepest math of physics, a bit of matter in a billion or so is not obliterated, it has no antimatter partner. It becomes a drop of experience. But why is the universe not symmetrical, not a perfectly smooth spread of photons, the particles of light? What's behind this break in symmetry? Why do some quarks (the stuff of particles in the nucleus of an atom) escape what's called the "primordial annihilation"? This question was on Nelson's mind for much of her life.

As for me? The mystery of cosmic asymmetry will always be the point at which an imaginary conversation with my brother about God would begin. We are on one of those docks on Lake Washington. The stars are in the sky. Bellevue shimmers in the distance and is reflected by the water. I turn to my brother and say: "I have never, ever said this to you before, but I will tonight. If there is a God, Kudzai, He can only be a break in symmetry. Not creation, but violation."


Kudzai's doctor at Harborview decided to extract a piece of the tumor, to find out if it originated from his stomach or his pancreas. They sedated him and put a breathing tube in his throat for the operation.

After Kudzai was under, the doctor realized he was sicker than they thought. The tumor was much larger than expected. It was choking him. The day after surgery, the medical team took out the breathing tube and gave him an oxygen mask, but when they saw he wasn't getting enough oxygen, they put the breathing tube back in.

On their advice, on July 21 we transferred him to University of Washington Medical Center for emergency radiation treatment. Our only chance was to blast high-energy beams at the tumor and hope it would begin to shrink.

Kudzai's radiation treatment began on July 22, but the prognosis did not get any better. It only got worse. The 12-to-16-month life expectancy he'd been given by Harborview doctors was way too generous. Now they were saying he had a couple of weeks. And even that turned out to be overly optimistic.

He was awake and talking for the first two days at UW. At one moment, Kudzai looked up at me from the hospital bed and said with dread-filled eyes: "Why is this not you, Charles? Why can't I live to be 50? I want to be as old as you. That's all I want right now."

I did not know what to say. Was this now the time to have our first talk about God? But my God, the cosmic violator, the breaker of symmetry, a Higgs boson–like God, would not have the answer. I'm almost certain He/She/Whatever can't talk and has no feelings, unlike the God of Alfred North Whitehead (a mathematician and philosopher and the father of a branch of experimental American theology). My God is closer to Spinoza's—completely impersonal. How do I explain all of this to a dying man? It's like talking about the chemical composition of water during a ship-tossing storm.

What I did know, however, was the radiation treatment wasn't even a long shot. It was like shooting an arrow into the night in the hope that it hits a moving target you can't see.

Kudzai's room was on the sixth floor of the UW Medical Center's Montlake Tower. It had chairs and a couch, behind which was a wide window that held the most perfect view of the Montlake Cut.

When not thinking about his life in a great rush of detail—his difficult birth in a Harare hospital in 1981; his teen years at the Eton of Zimbabwe, called Peterhouse Boys School; his move to Seattle from Botswana in 1998; his rock bands (the Red Sea Sharks and the Chimanimanis); his obsession with British pop and American popular culture; his various jobs in the social services; his casual style of walking; his close relationships with my father and my son—I would turn to the window and watch the boats go up and down the cut.

During one of these moments, I recalled something that Dr. Jonathan Golob, a former science columnist for The Stranger, told me while drinking at a bar near the office in 2009 (his choice of tipple was pale beer, mine white wine). He described a city as a hyper-river. Clean water comes in, flows through our bodies, washes our hands, skin, mouths, clothes, and dishes, and then flows out.

Golob, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, was also fascinated by the work of Gerald Pollack, a UW professor of bioengineering, who has spent most of his career championing a new understanding of water.

The medium of life—H2O—is more complicated than we think. We see it as steam, liquid, and ice. Pollack has added a fourth stage, which is between ice and liquid. He calls it structured water. It is made of flexible sheets. It responds to sunlight. When photons from the core of the star in the sky reach structured water, energy is generated. Because a good part of the human body is in a state of structured water, we are, as Morpheus in The Matrix said, walking batteries.

On the second day of radiation treatment, July 23, Kudzai stopped talking. I started to see my brother as no longer himself but as an organism, a critically compromised chemical system. The computer screen above the system's bed monitored how much oxygen it absorbed and how much carbon dioxide it released. Blood was drawn regularly. A machine automatically checked the system's blood pressure every 15 minutes. Tubes fed vital nutrients directly into a process that burned food with oxygen. And once a day, beams of energy were shot into the core of the system to arrest and shrink a tumor composed of cells that had many months before escaped their tissue growth regulations.


Not far from where we watched the reduction of Kudzai to chemical processes that had developed over 3.7 billion years of life's history on earth, three scientists at the University of Washington were sharing their new and important discovery about life's origins with Ed Yong, the science writer for the Atlantic. The story would be posted on August 12. It informed the public that the scientists had figured out a plausible process for the emergence of life on our planet.

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The story went viral. One writer, James Urton, also of the UW, described it as "Researchers Solve Puzzle of Origin of Life on Earth." You might be forgiven for thinking that this headline is sheer clickbait, but when you go into the details of the discovery, which centers on the membrane of protocells, it is that amazing.

The three scientists are Roy Black (a biochemist), Sarah Keller (a UW professor of chemistry), and Caitlin Cornell (a UW doctoral student). And the question they solved is this: How did a membrane self-assemble and become durable on the prebiotic earth?

For the past 40 years or so, scientists devoted to the origin-of-life puzzle have placed emphasis on either the self-assembly of the machinery of life (proteins) or its mode of information transmission (RNA). The idea of beginning with a place to live, a cell wall, an inside and outside, was a minor player.

It has been known that fatty acids (the raw materials for a cell's membrane) self-assemble in water. They assemble into a sphere, but it's a frail sphere. What has not been known is what keeps those spheres together under certain stresses, say salt (which was plentiful in the waters of the early earth) or magnesium (which RNA, the ancestor of DNA, needs to function). What Black's team found, with assistance from a number of labs on campus, is little suns in fatty acids. These suns turned out to be amino acids, the stuff of proteins.

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Black, Keller, and Cornell's paper, which involved nine other UW researchers, is titled "Prebiotic amino acids bind to and stabilize prebiotic fatty acid membranes." As the scientists explain: "In addition to providing a means to stabilize protocell membranes, our results address the challenge of explaining how proteins could have become colocalized with membranes. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and our results are consistent with a positive feedback loop in which amino acids bound to self-assembled fatty acid membranes, resulting in membrane stabilization and leading to more binding in turn."

What this means is that all of the key components of life emerged not separately but together (or as the scientists say, "co-locally") from the internal surface of the membrane.

Now, why is this discovery so important? To begin with, in the origin-of-life field, you must take one of these two positions: Life is a freak accident or the universe is pregnant with life.

The first position was championed by an existentialist biologist named Jacques Monod (1910–1976), and the latter by the Belgian chemist Christian de Duve (1917–2013). If you take the first position, then you pretty much believe life is a miracle. If you take the second position, as I do, then you believe life is like a rock, a star, a stream. It is what happens in a universe of our kind. The discovery that resilient cells can form on their own means there is nothing special about the origins of life. It is all a matter of the right reaction conditions, reaction pathways, and reaction mechanics. If the symmetry of the universe is broken by God, chemistry will do the rest.


During the weekend of July 26, Kudzai was mostly unconscious, and when his mind resurfaced and cleared, it was immediately struck by panic. He did not want to die. The nurses would rush in and swiftly sink him back into the purgatory of sedation.

On July 27, an oncologist and I sat in a small windowless room designated for despairing family members and frank doctors. She told me that my brother's chances were next to zero. The radiation had not really worked. The cloud of cancer in his lungs had only thickened.

With the very last drop of hope I could squeeze out of my being, I told her that my brother was extraordinary. He was bravely fighting for his life. The doctor, with legs crossed and eyes not looking at me but down at the carpet, said that they all want to live. All of them who come here do the exact same thing—they fight as hard as they can. She had never seen a patient who just gave up. We are animals. This is in our nature. To endure, to thrive. Conatus. The worst thing that can happen to any animal is to be no more.

My brother crossed the river on July 29. Our sister, who flew in from London, was there to say farewell. Before Kudzai had lost consciousness, my family played his favorite song, which, to my surprise, was "Bitter Sweet Symphony" by the Verve. (My brother and I did not share the same taste in music.) On the day before he died, when he was no longer talking, my family (which was always present during his final days) played that song over and over again. And we played a few old Shona songs.

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We drank lots of wine. We ate in the cafeteria, which is accessed by what can only be described as an underground maze. We smoked by the bus stop. We were startled on Kudzai's last full day, a Sunday, the day the Abrahamic God is said to have rested after creating the universe, by the roar of the Blue Angels. They flew over Lake Washington, the Montlake Cut, Lake Union, Elliott Bay.

I will miss you, Kudzai.

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