(Unlike NASA) No Theology at Dutch Origins Center: Frank Helmich Interview

<strong>FRANK P. HELMICH</strong>
FRANK P. HELMICH

In recent meetings in The Netherlands with principals of the Dutch Origins Center I was advised that, unlike at NASA, funds there will not be used to address theology. Frank Helmich, who chairs the Dutch Origins Center core group and heads the astrophysics programs at SRON (Netherlands Institute for Space Research)---one of the Center’s 18 participating institutes---told me this during a space instruments tour at SRON/Groningen:

“We will not make the mistake NASA made.”

Several days later in Amsterdam, Origins Center coordinator Jan-Willem Mantel confirmed that theology is not part of the Dutch initiative.

Over a million US dollars were squandered by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) for a two-year program (2015-2017) to find out, among other things, how the religious community would respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life---a story I reported here, which Jerry Coyne picked up a few days later followed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filing a Freedom of Information Act request. The NAI grant went to theologians roughly two years before the weakening of the wall between Church and State favored by the Trump administration.

“(1) Formulating a “Christian response” to scientific studies on morality. (2) Developing a new model of biblical interpretation. (3) Relating themes from First Corinthians, a book in the Christian bible, to astrobiology. (4) Reconciling a potential astrobiology discovery with Christian theology. (5) Looking at how astrobiology would affect the Christian doctrine of redemption. (6) Examining Christian ethics and Christian doctrines of human obligation. (5) Looking at societal implications of astrobiology with “theological ethics.” (6) Writing a monograph on Christian forgiveness.”

As for whether there is life in outer space, Frank Helmich, whose roots are in the exoplanet community, told me in our interview that follows that “there must be habitable planets,” but as for whether there is life there: “I don’t know, I really don’t know.” He said further that telescopes for finding the right biomarkers to determine this are “decades away” from being made.

Clearly Helmich is in the know about the latter. He oversees instrument project development at SRON. He’s been principal investigator on the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared on the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory and lead scientist for The Netherlands on the SPICA/SAFARI instrument, among other projects. He is also a member of the Herschel, GUSTO, and STO-2 science teams.

I first exchanged emails with Frank Helmich while en route to The Netherlands in late October but had not yet fixed an appointment with him when I bumped into him on a train traveling north from Amsterdam to Groningen through Holland’s gorgeous farm country. Helmich boarded in Utrecht where SRON has principal headquarters, but I was so exhausted after a long journey from Dundee via Edinburgh via Dublin that I didn’t really notice him until we pulled into Groningen station.

From certain angles, Helmich looks a bit like Baryshnikov, and his playful humor rivals his professional credentials. Our interview follows.

SRON/University of Groningen

Frank Helmich: I was surprised when your article in Huffington Post came to my attention---that you were aware of the Dutch Origins Center. I still do wonder, how did you find out?

Suzan Mazur: I saw a brief reference months ago about the Dutch Origins Center conference August 31-September 1, but didn’t investigate further. I should have. It would have been good to attend. But I did at least report that the kickoff was about to happen. Dave Deamer sent me a note when the article posted saying Harry Lonsdale would have been delighted.

Frank Helmich: Lee Cronin in his talk at the conference referred to the remark you made in the Huffington Post article about his “Alien chemist.”

Suzan Mazur: Did he really.

Frank Helmich: He did yes. It was an excellent gathering---to see what’s possible, what the boundary conditions are right now. That was the first time that we could really do that. It was also good to be together because most of us don’t know each other very well. It provided momentum that made the symposium so important for us.

Suzan Mazur: Was the decision to make the Origins Center at the University of Groningen at all related to Google’s presence here? The computers---

Frank Helmich: No, not at all. It was purely driven by the Dutch science and research agenda. There was a consultation of the general public, initiated by the Ministry of Education and Science and the response was 12,000 questions from the public and also from researchers. Things they found important and needed to be solved by science.

Suzan Mazur: How much funding do you have? You’re separately funded from the synthetic cell development project that Bert Poolman is involved with. Right? He said they’ve received 20 million euros in funding.

Frank Helmich: We have very different funding areas. For the Origins Center itself---2.5 million euros have been given to the Center to start. So we’re working with scientists who already have tenured jobs and are willing to contribute, along with their postdocs, to the research. The initiative is clearly national but we’re working internationally as well. Science is always international.

Suzan Mazur: You’ve got 30 or 40 people working with the Dutch Origins Center now?

Frank Helmich: We asked 40 people to be part of the working group, so they came to meetings and we discussed how we should proceed. But the group is much larger if you consider the number of people we invited to all the workshops. We organized several workshops on several topics and at least 200 tenured people attended. If everybody would be interested from the fields involved, we’d have a group of 700. For a small country like The Netherlands, that’s not so bad.

So active is probably more on the order of 40 to 100 and we could have 700. But how you manage 700 scientists is a different question.

Suzan Mazur: Dieter Braun told me that there’s a new dynamic in origin of life research, that a new generation of experimentally-driven scientists have entered the field. No more fishing expeditions.

Frank Helmich: It’s difficult for me to judge, because I’m new to the field, but I think I support that perspective. From what was presented at the recent symposium here and the workshops we had, the research is much more professional than it used to be. I don’t think we will see any more fishing expeditions.

Suzan Mazur: Would you tell me how you set up the Dutch Origins Center? Is Ben Feringa involved in a hands-on way or is he the figurehead?

Frank Helmich: Ben Feringa is the patron and figurehead of the whole Origins Center. He also read our proposal prior to submission and corrected it. Ben’s research [molecular systems] is also one of the key areas of investigation in origins of life. He is very connected to the Center even though he travels a lot as a Nobel laureate.

Setting up the Origins Center involved a funding agency, NWO---The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. NWO had a large database of people possibly interested in the subject. So together with a colleague from NWO, I sent around emails saying: Are you interested in participating in a workshop about this topic?

Seventy people attended our first workshop on the subject. They were very interested in finding out what it was all about, also what kind of funding was attached to it. The general spirit was very good, but we found out that all these scientific disciplines had very different languages. It was difficult for people to talk to one other. They had to explain more than they could really ask questions.

Seventy people also participated in the second workshop, and we were then able to decide:

Okay, we can bundle these ideas in five game-changing topics[: (1) origin and co-evolution of earth-like planets and life, (2) predicting evolution, (3) building and directing life from molecule to biosphere, (4) finding extraterrestrial life, (5) bridging long temporal and spatial scales].

Bundling was necessary because we also had to send the proposal as part of the whole Dutch Science and Research Agenda to the parliament and ministry. When our part all came together, it was about origins of life, thus the name Dutch Origins Center.

Suzan Mazur: What is your current role and how does it differ from that of Jan-Willem Mantel’s role as manager?

Frank Helmich: I’m involved, since January 2016, as chairman of the core group. I am still chairman of the core group.

When we applied for money, we got some money. But real work had to be done and we had other jobs as well. I still have another job.

So Jan-Willem does the day-to-day coordination and I handle interaction with the core group. I chair the meetings.

Suzan Mazur: Are you doing experimental research in your field of astrophysics/astrochemistry as well?

Frank Helmich: My expertise is currently bringing people together, making sure funding is available and that space instruments are built. In Europe when you build something for space, it involves a lot of member states and institutes. You have to build consortia to make space instruments. I’ll show you some of the instruments in the tour later.

Suzan Mazur: Do you have any doubts that we live in a 3-D reality? There’s been a lot of discussion about it this year at Perimeter Institute, University of Southampton, University of Waterloo, Fermilab and other places.

Frank Helmich: I don’t know.

Suzan Mazur: They’re saying there’s early evidence that we live in a 2-D reality.

Frank Helmich: Does that change my way of life? Not yet, I would say.

Suzan Mazur: What are the plans for the Dutch Origins Center?

Frank Helmich: We’ve only received 2.5 million euros. That’s not much, so we have to improve on that. What we did is for the first two, three years we appointed seven fellows who are going to work on the game-changing topics. We’re going to build all kinds of small projects in which people can start to collaborate with each other and learn each other’s language. We will have a symposium every one and a half years for the whole community. We’ll also apply for European Union funding. Funding is crucial to keep researchers interested.

Suzan Mazur: The big data aspect is important.

Frank Helmich: Yes and no. There are parts of the Origins Center that have to do with sequencing and bioinformatics, but there are also things that need much, much less data. So in some parts you’ll see it and in some parts you won’t. The same is true for big science facilities. The exoplanet community, where my roots are more than anywhere else. They need very big telescopes---

Suzan Mazur: Are you optimistic about habitable exoplanets?

Frank Hemlich: Yes. There are so many planets in the galaxy, there must be habitable planets. That doesn’t mean that there is life there. I don’t know, I really don’t know. Probably there is. But there’s no way I can prove it now. However, if we are able to find the right biomarkers, which we can’t at the moment, and if we’re able to build very large telescopes in which we can see the atmospheres and soil---we may be able to detect it. But this is decades away.

Suzan Mazur: What would you say is unique about the Dutch Origins Center?

Frank Helmich: The number of disciplines involved. They run from astrophysics to cell biology and chemistry. This is very, very big. It’s not being done to this extent at other places, as far as I know.

Suzan Mazur: The Dutch Origins Center seems to be lending a new seriousness to the effort.

Frank Helmich: That’s my goal, yes. If we do it, we have to do it right. What has surprised me is the enthusiasm of the scientists: Hey, this is something new, something that we have never tried before. And there is a platform on which we can do it.

Suzan Mazur: It’s not a way to get money for basic research.

Frank Helmich: Without money, it fails. The Dutch science and research agenda is about getting money, let’s be fair about it. But that is what is needed in The Netherlands to maintain and expand the high level of research.

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