Origins Symposium – The Public Session, April 6th

Monday, April 6, 2009 was a special day for me, and many others. It was an all-day series of presentations, discussions, and panels on the origins of the universe, galaxies, life, and intelligence, and included discussions of how the universe and physics work.  Leading scientists and mathematicians from around the world participated.   I couldn’t begin to summarize the information, but I have tried to provide some key points from each of the sessions. I am sure I have made errors, but I did my best.

Your comments are encouraged.

The Origins Symposium website is They say they will have video archives of the presentations within a week, and then you won’t need my notes. Or you can check up on them.

9:30 – 12:30 AM
Stephen Pinker – Evolutionary psychologist, linguist, computational theory of the mind.

“The Cognitive Niche”

We occupy a very special place among animals. Why and How?

Human Features:

  • Tools
  • Cooperation – especially between non-kin
  • Grammatical language
  • Wide range of habitats
  • Extreme omnivore
  • Extended childhoods
  • Bi-parental care
  • Complex sexuality, long-term mating
  • Division into cultures

Why us? Why did we develop intelligence? Our brain is “costly”. It is 2% of our body mass and uses 20% of our energy. What would make a big brain beneficial? Perhaps:

  • Prehensile hands
  • Ability to get meat, a much higher energy food. It’s harder to catch an antelope than broccoli.
  • Group living

The co-evolution of three elements, Language, Know-how, and Sociality, gave Man an evolutionary advantage in the “evolutionary arms race”. For example, sociality and language gave man the ability to pass along know-how to future generations.

Uniquely we have the ability to handle analogies and symbolism, and prepare for future events [Although chimps have shown this recently. JF]

It is the result of Intelligent Design? No. If so, it was done very poorly.

A question to be answered: Where do the arts fit in? Is there an adaptive advantage to art, or is it merely for pleasure?

Don Johanson – Paleoanthropologist, discovered “Lucy”.

Johanson started with a summary of man’s evolution and how Darwin’s ideas contributed to the understanding of man’s evolution. Huxley and Darwin, with a leap of intuition, proposed that the cradle of Man was in Africa. Evidence was sketchy at the time.

He described how he found Lucy and how he felt. He recognized a human elbow as it sat only half exposed in the dirt.

Some other significant finds:

  • Australopithecus afarensis, in 1925, commonly called the “missing link”
  • Nutcracker man, in the Great Rift Valley on the edge of the Serengheti.
  • Human footprints in Tanzania, from 3.6 MYa
  • Baby fossil, from 3.7 MYa

Man moved out of Africa before he developed the use of fire.

Physiological development sequence:

  1. Reduction in canine size (6-7 MYA)
  2. Bipedalism
  3. Cheek teeth
  4. Reduced tooth size
  5. Enlarged cranium
  6. Other specializations

The last common primate might have existed as recently as 6-7 million years ago rather than 15 million years ago.

Brian Greene – Theoretical physicist, string theory

Not a presentation, but a discussion with Lawrence Krauss, the Symposium organizer. Greene’s early influences included documentary series “The Ascent of Man”, Jacob Bronowski, and “Cosmos”, Carl Sagan. His graduation from Oxford was 1984, a breakthrough year for String Theory.

There were a variety of string theories, one requiring 22 extra dimensions for a total of 26 space-time dimensions. String theory provides order for the 200 particles we know of. Although not proven, Greene believes that string theory is the “best bet”. Krauss does not agree. Is string theory leading us astray? No, because we are finding the particles string theory predicts.

Has string theory fallen on “hard times”? No, we are merely reevaluating, and there may be new directions it will lead to.

The future: The linking of string theory to cosmology. Better measurements of the cosmic ray microwave background radiation could be useful in this.

1:45 – 5:45 PM
Richard Dawkins – Evolutionary biologist, “The Selfish Gene”

Not a presentation, but a discussion with Paul Davies. How did life start? There would have to have been a simple means of replication and of heredity. DNA is too complicated. RNA is a good candidate. They are both linear in form, while the proteins they produce are not. Linear forms are needed for coding information.

Darwinian evolution has no “look-ahead” capability. But our brain can look ahead and influence things.

Can evolution produce something as complex as eyes? Yes. Eyes have evolved independently at least 40 times. Other features, such as flying have evolved along different paths, too.

Our last common universal ancestor of all living things (LUCA) is not the same as the beginning of life, because many branches died out. LUCA probably existed one-half billion years after life first existed.

Big question: Is the start of life likely or unlikely? Tantalizing question. Perhaps life is relatively easy, but intelligence hard to evolve. Lots of life forms do extremely well with no intelligence.

Is there life “out there”? Dawkins is reluctant to comment.

Craig Venter – Sequenced the human genome.

Over the past years, his expeditions have been collecting life forms and sequencing their genomes. He is finding new life forms, even in places such as the so-called “dead” Sargasso Sea. We have probably found all or most all mammalian genes.

Synthetic genomes (life forms): They have built one, and it killed cells in a Petri dish. Therefore you could say they have built a virus.

If one were to synthesize a complete chromosome, how would you get it started? “Boot it up?”

Artificial genomes could be used for chemical production.

Lawrence Krauss – Physicist, Director of Origins Initiative, “The Physics of Star Trek”

Rather than a presentation, this session was a discussion between Paul Davies and Lawrence Krauss. Basically Paul served up a series of questions for Krauss’ comments.

Krauss’ summarized the history of thinking beginning with Einsteins’s concept of static universe and the “Cosmological Constant” required keep it from collapsing. We now know it is not static or collapsing, but expanding, and Einstein’s constant has morphed into Dark Energy which is causing the expansion.

Krauss also described how we are able to measure the size of the universe and its rate of expansion. He concluded with some observations on the fate of the universe.

Nobel Laureates Panel

Moderator, Ira Flatow – NPR “Science Friday”

Baruch Bloomberg – Hepatitis B virus, discovery and vaccine.
Walter Gilbert – physicist, molecular biologist, sequencing nucelotides, RNA hypothesis for the origin of life.
Sheldon Glashow – nuclear physicist, predicted charm quark, proposed “grand unified theory” for particles.
David Gross – particle and string theorist, “asymptotic freedom” for quarks.
John Mather – astrophysicist, COBE, cosmic background explorer satellite, cosmology.
Frank Wilczek – theoretical particle physicist, “asymptotic freedom”, quantum chromodynamics.

This was a wide-ranging panel discussion and hard to summarize.
Looking for life on other planets and systems will be hard, especially if we include other forms of life than ours.

Where should we look? Candidates:

  • Mars
  • Europa – briny ocean under ice
  • Titan – methane atmosphere
  • Ganymede

Dark Matter will be found to be a particle, such as a WIMP (Weakly Interacting Massive Particle), or an “Axion” or some 3rd kind of new particle, predicted by Gilbert. There are three experiments which may tell us the answer:

  • The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) will may create dark matter
  • Measurements being made far underground
  • Planned orbiting experiment to detect dark matter annihilation.

7:15 – 8:30 PM
Jason Latimer – World Champion of Magic.

This was a disappointing magic show, involving some old-fashioned card tricks, and some laser beam illusions, which did not seem that impressive. At the suggestion of an audience member near me, I opened up my laptop and we got a better view of the same trick on YouTube than we could see from our seats.

Panel on Science and Culture

Moderator, Lawrence Krauss

Hugh Downs – TV guy
Ann Druyan – Last wife of Carl Sagan, co-author of “Cosmos”
Neil DeGrass Tyson – Astrophysicist, Director of NY Hayden Planetarium
Added to the panel: Lucy Hawking – Children’s science writer and Stephen Hawking’s daughter

The main topic discussed was the low standing of science in America, typified by the Bush administration and religious fundamentalism, and other anti-science movements. Several causes for this were mentioned, but the most credible seemed to be that science was poorly taught in the primary grades. Science is not a bunch of facts, but a process. Naturally inquisitive children were turned off by the way science is presented, and many are forever lost.

There is no shortage of science in the media. “If you have a good story the media will publish it.”

Scientists do not communicate well, and those who try, are sometimes penalized by academic attitudes.

8:30 PM
Stephen Hawking – Theoretical Physicist

Stephen Hawking was in California in a hospital recovering from a lung infection. He was represented by his daughter Lucy, who introduced his presentation. We viewed a pre-recorded audio presentation with the same slides he would have presented had he been here.

Title: “Why Go Into Space”

Hawking: My life is a paradox. Physically I am limited, but I can travel across space and into black holes.

We spent 24 billion dollars for a piece of moon rock. We put a man on the moon on April 11, 1969. There was no known practical reason to do so. Yet in doing so, we developed Large Scale Integrated Circuits, which are the basis of all our computers. Similarly, Columbus had no idea what he would find.

We need to learn how life began. Are we alone? Did life originate here, or come from someplace else? (Panspermia)

We now spend only 0.12% of our national budget on NASA. We could afford twenty times that amount.

Why have we not made contact with other life? Possible reasons:

  1. The probability of life being created is low.
  2. The probability of intelligent life is low. Intelligence is not necessary for the survival of life.
  3. Intelligent life developed, but destroyed itself.

The ISS (International Space Station) has shown we can survive in space. But zero gravity is a physiological problem. Therefore we should go to a moon or a planet. Candidates: our Moon, Mars, Europa (Jupiter), Titan (Saturn).

He finished his presentation with the slide:

“To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before”

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