What is Life? Another Great Debate

By Ken Perrott 31/03/2011 2

The Arizona State University Origins Project in partnership with the Science Network, J. Epstein Foundation and the NASA Astrobiology Institute has sponsored another interesting debate – The Great Debate – What is Life? This follows on from their recent debate on morality –  The Great Debate – Can Science tell us Right from Wrong? (see Telling right from wrong).

I have yet to watch “What is Life?” (videos and audio downloads are available) but it certainly looks interesting. From the Science Network description:

Richard Dawkins, J. Craig Venter, Nobel laureates Sidney Altman and Leland Hartwell, Chris McKay, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss, and The Science Network’s Roger Bingham discuss the origins of life, the possibility of finding life elsewhere, and the latest development in synthetic biology. More than 2500 people filled ASU Gammage Auditorium on Saturday, February 12 to listen to this remarkable collection of scientists whose particular perspectives range from the cosmic to the microscopic.

And information on the panel and participants follows:

What is Life? Panel Discussion

Richard Dawkins, J. Craig Venter, Nobel laureates Sidney Altman and Leland Hartwell, Chris McKay, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss, and The Science Network’s Roger Bingham discuss the origins of life, the possibility of finding life elsewhere, and the latest development in synthetic biology.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is a renowned evolutionary biologist and author. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and was the inaugural holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His first book, The Selfish Gene, was an international bestseller and is now a classic work of modern evolutionary biology. His other books include The Blind Watchmaker, River Out Of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Ancestor’s Tale, and The God Delusion.

Sidney Altman

Sidney Altman is the Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology at Yale University and an Origins Project Distinguished Visiting Professor at Arizona State University. He won the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discoveries concerning the catalytic properties of RNA. His discoveries opened up new fields of scientific research and biotechnology and caused scientists to rethink old theories of how cells function. They also led to new hypotheses about the emergence of RNA on Earth and the possibility that RNA was the molecule that gave rise to the Earth’s first life forms.

Lee Hartwell

Lee Hartwell won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for discoveries related to the genetics of cell division. His discovery demonstrated the unity of all life and has significantly impacted cancer research. A former president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Hartwell now directs the Center for Sustainable Health at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute and is Virginia G. Piper Chair of Personalized Medicine.

Chris McKay

Chris McKay is a planetary scientist with the Space Science Division of the NASA Ames Research Center and is one of the world’s leading experts on Titan. His broader interests focus on understanding the relationship between the chemical and physical evolution of the solar system and the origin of life. He has been actively involved in planning for future Mars missions including human settlements.

J. Craig Venter

J. Craig Venter is the Founder, Chairman and President of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) a not-for-profit research and support organization dedicated to human, microbial, plant and environmental genomic research, the exploration of social and ethical issues in genomics, and seeking alternative energy solutions through genomics. In May 2010 the J. Craig Venter Institute published results describing the successful construction of what has been described as the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. Dr. Venter is also Co-Founder, Chairman, CEO, and Co-Chief Scientific Officer of Synthetic Genomics Inc., a privately held company founded in 2005, is dedicated to developing and commercializing genomic-driven solutions to address global energy and environment challenges.

Paul Davies

Paul Davies is College Professor in the Department of Physics and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. He helped create the theory of quantum fields in curved spacetime, and currently champions the theory that Earth may host a shadow biosphere of alternative life. His newest book is The Eerie Silence. He has won numerous awards including the 1995 Templeton Prize.

Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss is Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Director of the ASU Origins Project at Arizona State University. He is the only physicist to have received the highest awards from all 3 major US professional physics societies. His publications include The Physics of Star Trek, Quintessence, and Atom, and the newly released Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science.

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2 Responses to “What is Life? Another Great Debate”

  • Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?

    Ken, I have a question that has been a puzzle to me. When is a study is supposed to be called scientific and when it is not? My question is about the labelling of every statistical study as a scientific study. Can we call statisticians scientists? If not, then why not, because their techniques is dominant in the so called scientific studies of today (even peer reviewed). A good example is the studies cited by Amanda in her blog post yesterday:

    “The influence of marketing on kids’ food preferences”

    As far as I see that study it is a statistical study and not a scientific one. Amada cited 2 papers. If the studies were published in marketing or statistics journals, they wouldn’t be called scientific study, would they? Just because they’re being published in Paediatrics then automatically they’re categorized as scientific. The statistical methods that the 2 papers Amanda cited in her article do use the traditional statistical methods as, Wilcoxon-Mann-Whitney U test, Spearman rank correlation, McNemar tests, etc,… In fact if you go in to some of the marketing journals, you find exactly these same techniques being used by those authors in their analysis.

    Can we call marketing journals, scientific journals then? If not then why not? If the same statistical methods are being used for very similar types of analysis in different research domain, where one is in Paediatrics and one in a marketing journal, then I can’t see why the marketing journal can’t be called a scientific journal since Paediatrics is?

    The term scientific study has been muddied these days, where no one knows exactly of what is scientific & what not. I posted a link here at Sciblog to a para-psychology study (peer reviewed) in a reputable psychology journal where the author of the paper used statistical method to conclude that human subjects can indeed see the future (pre-cognition). As far as I see that study, was nothing scientific there except using some statistical methods?

    Now, can statistics tell us of what is right and what is wrong? I’m not sure, as the para-psychology study I mentioned above, the author is convinced via his statistical analysis is that we humans after-all can see the future via pre-cognition or what’s ahead of us. I reckon that such para-psychology statistical studies excited the likes of Ken Ring & his mystics’ followers.

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