2003 - 2004

Sir Martin Rees: "Life in Our Universe and Others"

When Oct 20, 2003
from 08:00 PM to 10:00 PM
Where Togo Salmon Hall (TSH) Room 120
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Sir Martin Rees

Sir Martin Rees
University of Cambridge

Astronomers can trace cosmic history back to an era befeore even the first stars had formed - right back, indeed to the initial instants of a big bang nearly 14 billion years ago. They have discovered planetary systems orbiting many other stars. This progress brings into focus a set of fascinating questions. Is there life - even intelligence - beyond the Earth? How can we best look for it? What is life's long-term future, here on Earth and perhaps far beyond? And we are emboldened to speculate further. Could there even be other big bangs? If so, would they generate other 'universes' governed by the same 'biofriendly' laws that have allowed the emergence of our complex cosmos from simple beginnings?

Speaker backgroundMartin Rees is Professor of Astronomy and Cosmology at the University of Cambridge and Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom. In 1973, he became Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge (until 1991). He served for ten years as director of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy and has been president of the Royal Astronomical Society (1992- 94). His many awards include the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Heineman Prize for Astrophysics of the American Astronomical Society, the Cosmology Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation and the Einstein Award of the World Cultural Council. He is the author of hundreds of research papers and several books for general readership. His main current research interests are in high energy astrophysics and cosmic structure formation - especially in the formation of the first stars and galaxies that formed at the end of the cosmic 'dark age'.

Prof. Stuart Kauffman: "Molecular Autonomous Agents - a Possible Physical Definition of Life"

When Nov 13, 2003
from 08:00 PM to 10:00 PM
Where Information Technology Building (ITB) Room 137
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Stuart Kauffman

Prof. Stuart Kauffman
Santa Fe Institute

Living organisms appear to act "on their own behalf", i.e. they do things that promote their own survival. I will call a system that has this ability an "autonomous agent". Even simple organisms like bacteria are able to respond to the presence of nutrients in their environment and swim towards them. We might say that a bacterium is "going to get food". But a bacterium is "just" a physical system. So what must a physical system be to constitute an autonomous agent? My definition is that it must reproduce and carry out thermodynamic work. I will develop this definition, show an example of a hypothetical molecular autonomous agent, and discuss the progressively stranger implications of this definition.

Speaker backgroundStuart Kauffman is a biologist who specializes in the theory of complex systems in biology, including the dynamics of genetic networks, molecular evolution in rugged fitness landscapes, and the origin of life. He has taken an interdisciplinary approach, using ideas from statistical physics and computer science. He was one of the founder members of the Santa Fe institute, a centre for interdisciplinary research in complex systems, and recently founded the Bios Group LP. He has held academic appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and University of New Mexico. He has been on the editorial board of Journal of Theoretical Biology, Molecular Diversity, and Evolution and Development. He has written several best-selling scientific books, including "The Origins of Order" and "Our Home in the Universe". This lecture will cover topics from his third book "Investigations", which explores the requirements for the emergence of a general biology that will govern biospheres anywhere in the cosmos, and which presents four candidate laws to explain how autonomous agents co-create their biosphere.

Prof. James Ferris: "From the Big Bang to the Origins of Life - an Approach to the Formation of the RNA World"

When Dec 01, 2003
from 08:00 PM to 10:00 PM
Where Togo Salmon Hall (TSH) Room 120
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James Ferris

Prof. James Ferris
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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The processes that led to the origins of life began with the Big Bang and proceeded via the formation of the elements, galaxies, solar systems and planets. The potential for life elsewhere in our galaxy and solar system will be discussed. Possible stages in the chemical evolution of the complex organic compounds on the prebiotic Earth will be outlined with an emphasis on a postulated route to RNA. In one scenario for the origins of life RNA is proposed to be a central molecule in the "RNA World" where life was based on RNA. In this proposal the RNA world preceded the DNA-protein world, which is the basis of life on Earth today.

Speaker backgroundJames Ferris is Professor of Chemistry and Director of the New York Center for Studies on the Origins of Life: A NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy NY. He has been Chair of the Chemistry Department, President of the International Society for Studies on the Origins of Life (ISSOL) and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has served on a number of panels of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences including the Space Studies Board, the Task Group on Sample Return From Small Solar Systems Bodies, and is currently the Chair of Task Group Exploring Organic Environments in the Solar System. He served as the editor of the ISSOL journal Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere. In 1996 he was awarded the Oparin Medal of ISSOL for " the best sustained scientific research program in the origin of life. His current research is focused on the laboratory investigation of the synthesis of RNA under primitive Earth conditions and the atmospheric photochemistry in Saturn's moon Titan.

Dr. Alan Boss: "Looking for Earths: The Race to Find New Solar Systems"

When Jan 22, 2004
from 08:00 PM to 10:00 PM
Where Chester New Hall (CNH) Room 104
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Alan Boss

Dr. Alan Boss
Carnegie Institute

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The search for planets outside our Solar System has a long and dismal history. However, all that changed in 1995, when we entered the era of the discovery of extrasolar planetary systems. To date, over 100 planets have now been found outside our Solar System, ranging from the fairly familiar to the weirdly unexpected. All of the new planets discovered to date appear to be gas giant planets, similar to our Jupiter and Saturn. The next challenge is to find ice giant planets, similar to Uranus and Neptune, and eventually to find evidence of Earth-like planets, capable of supporting life. NASA has designed an array of ground and space-based telescopes that will carry out this incredible search in the next two decades.

Speaker backgroundAlan Boss is a research staff member at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, DC. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Meteoritical Society, and the American Geophysical Union. He is chair of the International Astronomical Union's Working Group on Extrasolar Planets, charged with maintaining the IAU's official list of planets. His research focuses on using three dimensional hydrodynamics codes to model the formation of stars and planetary systems. He has been helping NASA plan its search for extrasolar planets ever since 1988, continues to be active in helping to guide NASA's efforts, and has written a popular book about the search.

Prof. Norman R. Pace: "A Molecular View of the Origin and Large-Scale Evolution of Life"

When May 25, 2004
Where McMaster Centre for Learning & Discovery Room 1305
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Norman R. Pace

Prof. Norman R. Pace
University of Colorado

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Gene sequences can be used to explore the relations between all existing life forms. The results also provide the first objective views of the large-scale structure of evolution throughout the history of biology. Analyses with some genes even reach into the pre-cellular period of life. The lecture will review our current understanding of the molecular Tree of Life, with emphasis on how our perception of biological diversity has expanded with studies of natural microbial communities. Correlation of geological information with landmarks in the molecular Tree will be used to carry us beyond the textbook versions of the course of life and the origin of eukaryotic cells.

Speaker backgroundNorman Pace is Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at The University of Colorado, in Boulder. He is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Microbiology and the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has received the United States’ highest award in microbiology, the Selman A. Waksman Award for Outstanding Achievement in Microbiology, from the National Academy of Sciences. He also has received the Procter and Gamble Award in Applied and Environmental Microbiology from the American Society for Microbiology and the Lewis Bicking Award for contributions to American caving from the National Speleological Society. Professor Pace’s research is focused in two arenas, on one hand RNA biochemistry and on another the application of molecular tools to the study of natural microbial ecosystems and to problems related to the large-scale pattern of evolution.