Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ASU Origins Great Debate: What is life?

I was lucky enough to have attended the ASU Origins Great Debate: What is Life? at Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium (a great venue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) this past Saturday. Fittingly, February 12th is Charles Darwin's birthday. I had a great seat, front row off to the side a bit.

Project director Lawrence Krauss (theoretical physicist and famous author) spoke for about 10 minutes introducing each of the panelists: noted atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Nobel Prize winning chemist Sidney Altman, Nobel Prize winning Lee Hartwell, NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay, theoretical physicist and author Paul Davies, and Biologist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter. The debate began with each of the 6 panelists speaking for 5 to 10 minutes on their own, ostensibly to define what life meant in their opinion. Each of them took a different tact, predictably. Some said what differentiates life from something inanimate. Other explained how you would look for life.

Richard Dawkins spoke first, defining life it as that which can not only reproduce but also pass along its genetic code. Altman followed Dawkins and did not differentiate significantly from his definition. The next speaker, Lee Hartwell,a physician by profession, was perhaps the most out of place. His expertise is in cancer research and he was obviously intelligent but, self-admittedly, he did not have particular insight to this subject.

McKay was next and was perhaps my favorite of the speakers. The area at NASA which he works on pertains to looking for life on other planets (and moons). He spoke on several criteria that they look for to try and detect life but the most interesting to me was in how life affects other things on a planet. The geology and weather of Earth are completely different because of the existence of life. Oxygen wouldn't exist without plant life. Geologic characteristics such as fossil fuels and limestone would not exist without organic life. Maybe because of my education (aerospace engineering) and childhood dream to be an astronaut, McKay spoke to a lot of my aspirations.

Davies talked about the fact that life that would not necessarily be the carbon-based forms we know of. He even went out on a limb and said that non-carbon-based life would be discovered on Earth within 10 years. The study that was released last year was misinterpreted to have indicated that such life had already been found. Rather, the study indicated that a life form was found that scientists were able to substitute phosphorus for arsenic and it adapted. It's still significant in that it shows that life doesn't have to be carbon-based but nothing like this has been found natively.

The last to speak was Venter and he didn't really try to define what life was but seemed more intent on talking about how he was going to create artificial life. The relationship between Venter and the other scientists here is much like it is anywhere else ... contentious. He does not hide his disdain for theoretical scientists. If you can't experiment with something in the lab, it's not worthy of Venter. Research for knowledge's sake is not really his modus operandi but rather will it give him publicity. I don't want it to sound like I'm completely down on Venter. I'm not. People like him definitely have a place and I do believe his research is going to lead to advancements in curing of diseases. But he needs to be tempered by others lest he turn into a modern Dr. Frankenstein. Venter, for those that don't already know, was the first to map the human genome.

The event ended with a round-table between the panelists and Krauss. Nothing earth-shattering was revealed except for the general disdain that Venter has for regular scientists and they for him. Krauss brought up artificial intelligence to get the others take on whether that is life. It was his belief that that A.I. is the future of the human race. With no real concerted effort to advance space exploration, the problems of population growth and depleted resources are going to make our own planet unlivable in less time than some would believe (or blindly hope).

The amount of people attending what one would expect to be a dry scientific forum among erudite crusty professors with primarily British accents gives one hope that our youth value things other than reality TV and mysticism. This was not a talk about religion but it is hard for any discussion on science or the nature of life to not address that elephant in the room. When discussing the age of the Earth, Krauss made a joke about those states that lean towards the Creationist view of the age of the planet. And judging by the thunderous applause for his joke, I'd suspect that there was not a single soul in attendance with the belief that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

The real rock star of the panel, Dawkins, attracts adulation that seems incongruous for a distinctly middle-age Oxford type. And, I'm not making this up, I am convinced that several attractive young ladies in dresses and high-heels in the front row were Dawkins groupies. They even ducked out of the talk a few minutes early to assure themselves a spot near the front of the line to get their books signed. I would have liked to have gotten my book signed as well, but by the time I got out, his line was about 500 deep. We're not talking about Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter here. We're talking about an atheist evolutionary biologist. I settled for getting Lawrence Krauss' autograph and he was exceedingly gracious, talking to me a for a bit, shaking my hand and personalizing his signature.

I figure I'll get another shot at Dawkins as he's already been to ASU Origins symposiums at least three times and seems to be a friend of Krauss. My seat was on the side of the stage where Dawkins was and when he stepped to the podium, he was no more than 10 feet from me. Pretty heady stuff for an evolution and atheist nerd like myself.

I find it gratifying to go to places where smart people speak honestly and politely disagree on some points when necessary but agree on larger ones. Most importantly:
- the need for rational thought
- the need for math and science education
- the need to honestly address the issues of our planet
- to have our investigations and research lead us where they may instead of having a result pre-ordained and fit the facts to it

I'm looking forward to more of the ASU Origins events and plan on attending the next one in April, ASU Origins Project 2011 Science & Culture Festival.


wunelle said...

I would have loved to go. I agree that one of the key tenets of the scientific method is openness and scrutiny, the ability to talk openly about what does and does not find support. There is always a human element here, and it's the fallible part of science. But it's science's inherent self-correction mechanism that keeps everything on the table; this is the very antithesis of dogma.

THAT deserves an 'amen.' ;-)

CyberKitten said...

Looks like you've been spammed.... [grin]


Sounds like a cool event. I wish that I'd been there.

As to the Dawkins groupies - he must have something going for him. After all didn't he snag Lalla Ward, the ex Mrs Tom Baker? That's quite a coup I thought.... [grin] It would seem that smart *is* sexy afterall!

dbackdad said...

Oooh ... I hate blog spammers!

Wunelle - I think you would have really liked it. I really would like to see Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Dennett and Hitchens, Stephen Pinker, Brian Greene, etc. speaking also. I'll be on the lookout for book signings, forums, etc.

CK - Did Dawkins snag her? Wow. Tom Baker was a nerd stud in his day as well. Baker was my first introduction into the world of Doctor Who. Many a drinking game was played in college while watching the Doctor. God knows that we didn't have lives or dates to get in the way of our nerdiness.

shrimplate said...

I am green with jealousy! I had to work and usually I do not get out of the hospital before 8 p.m. What a group.

My kid wants to study at the Institute for Human Origins at ASU, but college is 6 years away and their thinking may change.

dbackdad said...

Thinking does indeed change. I was a big Wright devotee growing up (family friends had studied at Taliesin West) and wanted to be an architect well into my teens. Then I got a degree in Aerospace Engineering. Now I work on computers and want to be a writer and philosopher. Ask me next week and it might be something else. :-)

CyberKitten said...

From Wikipedia:

Ward was in a relationship with her co-star Tom Baker whilst working on Doctor Who, and they lived together in a flat in Chelsea. The couple married in December 1980, but the marriage lasted only sixteen months.[3] Ward attributed the separation to work commitments, different lifestyles and conflicts of interest.

Ward said in 2004 that her long friendship with Douglas Adams, with whom she worked on Doctor Who, meant more to her and was "more valuable and more enduring" than her marriage to Baker.[2] In 1992, at his 40th birthday party, Adams introduced her to his friend Richard Dawkins (biologist and author of such books as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and, later, The God Delusion). Ward and Dawkins married later that year.

Sadie Lou said...

"- to have our investigations and research lead us where they may instead of having a result pre-ordained and fit the facts to it"

Yeah. I love that. I am so tired of all the logical fallacies people bring to the table. It would be so refreshing to have people come to a round table discussion without all the added baggage of our "pre-ordained results" and theories. I find it tiresome when people cannot think rational thoughts outside of their tiny, little box-or when people try to stuff whatever you say into their box, or exclude what you say/think because it doesn't fit in their little box.
In my "Christian Resources" file of bookmarks on my computer, I have booked marked the page of Fallacy. It really helps when you're in a debate with someone and find that you're running into these irrational thought patterns.
It helps to identify the fallacy you're dealing with and then call them out on it so you can move on to a healthier discussion.

dbackdad said...

CK -- Tom Baker, Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins? She chose her friends well.

Sadie -- It is really surprising (or maybe not) how many times you run into things when getting into discussions with others ... especially on blogs: irrelevant conclusion, begging the question, straw man arguments and even ad hominem attacks.

That's why I liked the discussion I went to. Even though you could sense a fundamental difference in opinion on the nature of experimentation and theory between Venter and the others, no one even raised their voice.

BTW, I'm going to post something on our group blog within the next day or so because I think it should bring up some good discussion. In Iowa this week, a male high school wrestler refused to wrestle a female wrestler (an oddity, I grant you) for religious reasons. Save any comments for there. I'll let you all know when it's up.

Sadie Lou said...

Wow! I'm so curious as to this new topic you're bringing up. Don't take too long or I will be tempted to go look it up.

"no one even raised their voice."

That is called maturity and respect. I LOVE that in a discussion; too bad it's rare.

dbackdad said...

OK Sadie and CK, the new post at the Round Table is up.

Sadie Lou said...

Man, I already talked too much. Slap me.