Thursday, 29 October 2015

Life in the Universe and Origins


“Origins of life is a fascinating question. How did we get here? Well, there are two questions: One is, what is the route from geology to biology - how did we get here? And the other question is, what did we start with? What material, if any, did we have to work with on this route? Those are two very, very interesting questions. The first question is a tortuous path from geology up to RNA or something like that - how did that all work? And the other, what do we have to work with? Well, more than we think. So what's pictured there is a star in formation. Now, every year in our Milky Way, which has 100 billion stars, about two new stars are created. Don't ask me how, but they're created. And it takes them about a million years to settle out. So, in steady state, there are about two million stars in formation at any time. That one is somewhere along this settling-down period. And there's all this crap sort of circling around it, dust and stuff. And it'll form probably a solar system, or whatever it forms. But here's the thing - in this dust that surrounds a forming star have been found, now, significant organic molecules. Molecules not just like methane, but formaldehyde and cyanide - things that are the building blocks - the seeds, if you will - of life. So, that may be typical. And it may be typical that planets around the universe start off with some of these basic building blocks. Now does that mean there's going to be life all around? Maybe. But it's a question of how tortuous this path is from those frail beginnings, those seeds, all the way to life. And most of those seeds will fall on fallow planets.

... if that path is tortuous enough, and so improbable, that no matter what you start with, we could be a singularity. But on the other hand, given all this organic dust that's floating around, we could have lots of friends out there. It'd be great to know.”

(Excerpt from an interview with Jim Simons on TED.com - Sep 2015)

Jim Simons was a mathematician and cryptographer who realized that the complex math he used to break codes could help explain patterns in the world of finance. Billions later, he’s working to support the next generation of math teachers and scholars. Research into the origins of life is one of the projects supported by his foundation.