I've been a science writer for more than a quarter of a century but have only occasionally experienced the disheartening feeling of a great science news story crumbling on the page before my eyes. I say page, it's usually been a screen. One of the earlier examples was when I had written about a team in Europe that apparently claimed to have generated more of one handed form of a product than the other, an enantiomeric excess, using a simple magnet.

Their paper had passed peer review; my news story was published (in the news pages of one of the most prominent of international, general scientific journals). But within days, the poles had shifted and chemists and materials scientists from North to South were shouting accusations of fraud. Fraud on the part of the researchers, I hastily point out, not the young science writer who had authored the news story. It turned out that a junior member of the research team had simply fabricated data to show what he hoped would be a chemical revolution. It was never going to work out well. Of course, from my point of view, it meant I was also obliged to write a follow-up story about the breaking news that he had been found out and the science had been revealed to be less serendipitous and more sword and sorcery than magnetic synthesis. So, two for the price of two.

Sometimes the stories crumble in a different way. Last week I spotted a small communications-type paper in a fairly well known journal. It described something potentially earth-shattering: revelations about the prebiotic chemistry that might have given rise to life on Earth. What's a science writer to do, but follow such a lead?

In the 1960s and 1970s, British chemist Leslie Eleazer Orgel and colleagues developed several theories of such a prebiotic chemistry. Most prominent in the work was the proposal that once the chemical conditions were ripe, RNA (as opposed to DNA) would be the molecule that would allow for self-replication and evolution of the earliest living things. The "RNA World" hypothesis is now widely accepted.

And yet the question as to how life began remains a mystery. Most fundamentally this is because simulating the so-called "primordial soup" or indeed any other environment from warm, sunny ponds to dark submarine cauldrons to panspermian cometry surfaces, does not give rise spontaneously to all the requisite building blocks. Certainly none of these simulations give us the requisite building blocks we assume must have existed immediately prior to the formation of a self-replicating information carrier such as RNA.

In seminal prebiotic research published by Orgel and colleagues reported that certain reactions were necessary but that these did not occur at sufficiently high rates. Moreover, the reactions were driven by light and looked to be a mere 4% efficient. That may well have been sufficient to create a vital excess, but probably not. In the intervening years, countless prebiotic reactions have been simulated and efforts made to replicate repeatedly the conditions that might have led to the conversion of the abiotic world to the biotic one we know today.

There have also been efforts to make Orgel's specific reactions work and some promising investigations have been published; one recently, or so I thought in that communications-type journal. From my first quick read-through of the paper I reasoned that the team had demonstrated how amplification of certain products and enantiomeric excesses, to boot might have arisen. I wrote a draft and contacted the principal investigator with a few questions. Unfortunately, it seems, I had grasped entirely the wrong end of the molecular stick. This work was, he told me, nothing more than a serendipitous discovery of an intriguing aside in the story of how prebiotic chemistry made the transition from non-biochemical to biochemical.

My breaking news had…well… "broke", but in a bad way. I had apparently misconstrued the specifics of the reactions reported. Indeed, it wasn't RNA precursors per se that the team had written up in this particular paper, but some side products of abiotic chemistry. The reactions did indeed proceed with relatively high efficiency and were light driven, I'd got that part correct, but they would not lead the abiotic to the prebiotic by any stretch, it seems. Shame. I was almost about to make a song and dance about my imminent Pulitzer Prize but now apparently my work was to be like Oscar in La La Land no longer dancing in the Moonlight, although it never even made it to the screen.

The next step in the tale of prebiotic science will be to find out what precursors to the precursors are necessary for the actual building blocks to be constructed. Spectroscopic evidence from the atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn and an intriguingly organically rich environment, hints at how prebiotic chemistry of the necessary sort might be occurring in conditions not dissimilar to those found on the early Earth. There is no hint that life exists on Titan but that prebiotic chemistry that led to life on our planet is at least putatively feasible.

Science is, of course, iterative who is to know where a specific paper might lead ultimately. It is full of serendipity and chance. But, there are also endless blind alleys and countless dead-ends. There are also moon shots with free return trajectories computed by hidden figures that sometimes they bring you back to earth with a bump having not even looked up at the stars from the proverbial gutter. I won't hold my breath for it me breaking the big news, but I will keep scanning the titles and abstracts of those communications-type journals in search of La La Land even if occasionally the land I find is instead "Cloud Cuckoo".

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".