"We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct." -- Neils Bohr
Covering a recent Origin of Life meeting at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the outskirts of Geneva, I was surprised to learn that I'd been made a member of Atlas, the particle physics experiment at CERN. As such, I probably qualified for a room at the CERN hotel (dormitory), along with two dozen of some of the biggest names in science who had gathered for strategic talks in February called COOL EDGE 2013. But as an independent journalist I'm used to making my own way, so I instead found lodging nearby at a centuries-old converted monastery housing a two-star Michelin restaurant, midst vineyards overlooking the Rhone and bison in the field. Each day as I left the chateau for the tram ride to CERN where 3,000 scientists work to support the Collider, now under repair, I was in phase transition from the 15th to 21st centuries.
The meeting at CERN, invitation only, was hosted by the very savvy Markus Nordberg -- a blonde Finnish-Swedish physicist turned Atlas administrator. It was designed, he said, for "friends of friends," i.e., the "metabolism-first" crowd, who would likely keep bloody noses to a minimum (they did), with many of the talks touching on autocatalytic sets.
Said Nordberg sharing his strategic thinking in perfect British English: "When you invite friends of the friends, they don't fight too much ... so that at least you have a little bit of critical mass ... but then you expose it. That is to say, you organize a public meeting where the enemies of the friends are invited ... it's polarized ... people mix like hot and cold water. And that's the point at which you are able to set up a collaboration."
The larger focus of the four-day talks was to begin to discuss engagement with CERN as the brand, the facilitator and administrator of the Origin of Life "experiment." Ultimately, the experiment has to somehow involve particle physics, which is CERN's main business. The proposal for such a collaboration is now being cooked up.
Some of the scientists associated with the proposed experiment are drawn to CERN because of its computing power.
But Nordberg told me this about CERN's computers:
While we have computing power, this is not the only place. What makes CERN special is the way we handle it. We do it in a distributed way ... [T]hese [Origin of Life] guys want the opposite. They want to centralize power. We don't have it. We would have to reprogram all our computers. Yes, it could be done. We could even be designing nice new motor cars. There's no problem. We could design super jets. But that's not our mission. Why would we do it?
The newer ideas presented in Salle Dirac hall at CERN came from Giuseppe Longo and Gabor Vattay. Longo is a mathematician at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and a collaborator of Stu Kauffman, the Complexity pioneer and "godfather" of COOL EDGE 2013. Longo, Kauffman and Mael Montevil think there are no entailing laws in the evolution of the biosphere, meaning an end to reductionism. According to Kauffman, this means "reason is an insufficient guide to living our lives and science cannot "know"."
Gabor Vattay, a quantum physicist at Eotvos University in Budapest, discussed "Poised Realm," a new state of matter that he says hovers between the quantum and classical worlds. Lockheed Martin and the Finnish government have already seriously invested in the idea. Vattay was largely applauded for his presentation with the caveat that he did not provide enough statistics. Some noticed that his low-slung jeans were also insufficient.
The big idea emerging from the meeting -- and it is projected that it will take 10 years to actualize -- is to create an Origin of Life center at CERN.
Gunter von Kiedrowski, the father of Systems Chemistry, during the wrap-up session spoke in terms of a 1.5 billion euros investment to establish such an institute, proposing further that the building be named for Stu Kauffman. Jesting about a Kauffman hologram adorning the front of the building.
Meanwhile, no one is even clear about how many scientists work in the Origin of Life field. Piet Hut, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies, who is organizing an international symposium this month at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Japan's MIT) with Origin of Life as its centerpiece, estimates there may be 500 or so Origin of Life researchers worldwide.
But how many independent researchers are there, like Stuart Pivar, for instance, who also provided financing (anonymously) for COOL EDGE 2013 when Templeton funding was uncertain? How many institutions are at work on Origin of Life? And what are the available resources?
While the "alpha males" of COOL EDGE -- Stu Kauffman, Gunter von Kiedrowski and Eors Szathmary -- presided over daily sessions, the baton was eventually passed to two younger scientists to further organize the group, John McCaskill, a theoretical biochemist at Ruhr University Bochum and University of Southern Denmark physicist Steen Rasmussen.
Both McCaskill and Rasmussen are actively running experiments that CERN can "understand," said Nordberg.
Some of the questions the Origin of Life group is considering follow, conveyed by John McCaskill:
1). Is Origin of Life experimentally reproducible?
2). Is Origin of Life process time and space compressible?
3). What is the nature of 2nd life?
4). How special are we?
5). How does Origin of life influence the environment?
6). Can combinatorial physics accelerate it?
7). Did quantum mechanical coherence facilitate Origin of Life?
8). Experimentally what are the major transitions in Origin of Life?
9). What are the necessary conditions for open-ended evolution in life?
There was also some attention to "the unthinkable" -- a subject CERN distances itself from -- during a 60th birthday party on February 27th for German scientist Gunter von Kiedrowski, with his wife and Ruhr University postdocs in attendance. Rupert Sheldrake was invited to speak about ghosts, but was unable to make it. Klaus Dona, a Viennese researcher of ancient art, replaced him.
I had a dinner engagement and left the lecture just as Dona was presenting the image of a giant footprint. Dona told me the Smithsonian has in storage bones from a seven-meter tall human found among dinosaur bones.
Von Kiedrowski's mentor was Leslie Orgel, who towards the end of his life along with Francis Crick wrote an article called "Directed Panspermia," that is intentional, intelligent panspermia. Van Kiedrowski told me that there is already theoretical evidence that dimensionality is a function of length of distance, referring to a recent lecture on the structure of space-time as a function of the landscape. With Eors Szathmary, a commanding evolutionary biologist and one of the famed Altenberg 16 scientists seated next to him nodding, von Kiedrowski told me that "it is very likely" that we are not alone. He also noted that the single case phenomenon is "real, non-deniable" but said he did not have any answer as to why governments "do not allow" us to have this kind of information.
Von Kiedrowski continued:
We have evolution on one side and this, of course, we cannot deny. But there is obviously another layer above evolution, which right now is in the layer of theological approaches because we cannot grab it. It doesn't allow us to do experiments with it. It is somehow separated from the real experience. So there is no difference between alien, extraterrestrial, interdimensional or deity. So if these things exist, then they will have technologies which surpass our understanding and we will have to give up the anthropocentric view as we had to give up the geocentric view.
The Origin of Life caravan moves on, as mentioned, to Tokyo Tech's Earth-Life Science Institute, March 27-29, and an international symposium chaired by Piet Hut of IAS, Princeton and hosted by ELSI Director Kei Hirose. Hirose told me he too thinks "we are not alone."