Life Beyond Earth

Life Beyond Earth


– We’re gonna be talking
about this series, the Catalysts of Change,
and it’s really about how scientific advances
are really going to be at the forefront of changes that are gonna be really having a huge
impact on your life. We have four lectures. We’re actually, as I said,
trying to experiment today, which should be kinda fun. We’re actually going
to have two lecturers, going, doing their, kind
of a lecture-off, or, I don’t know what the right term is, but there’s gonna be here. Actually, it’s collaborative. They’re going to be talking about this really interesting idea of what’s gonna be, what is
the future for humans on earth as well as life in outer space? And so, it’s, the experiment is, you know, we’ve never tried this before,
of having two esteemed people come and talk about
science in a collaborative but also sort of entertaining way. So, tonight’s lecture is
called Life Beyond Earth, and it’ll just really
look at the trajectory of life beyond earth,
so without further ado, let me introduce our two speakers. Our first speaker is
somebody you’ve seen before on this stage: Chris Impey. Chris is the University
Distinguished Professor of Astronomy in the College of Science. He received his graduate
and PhD in Astronomy from the University of Edinburgh,
and he has been a member of the faculty in the Department
of Astronomy since 1986. He works mostly in the fields
of extragalactic astronomy and observational
cosmology and has over a– (audience laughing) Oh, I didn’t realize it’s doing. I guess– (laughs) I guess that’s what observational
astronomy is all about. (audience laughing) Dr. Impey has over 170
refereed publications in 70 published conference proceedings. He’s written a number of
popular science books. I recommend them too highly. Marked by their incorporation
of cutting-edge research and the use of vignettes
that place the reader in unfamiliar scenes. Our second speaker is Betul Kacar. Betul is actually, I
believe, she just informed me that I believe is our youngest
speaker in this series. And remember, we’ve been
doing this for 15 years, so we’re excited about having Betul here. She’s a assistant professor
in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and
also in the Department of Astronomy, and that’s
the connection here you’ll see tonight. She received her PhD from
the Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Emory Medical School, and this is where I get
confused, being a physicist. She’s studying the structure,
function, relationship of monoamine oxidases, which
I Googled, which has something to do with the controlled
oxidation of drugs. She’ll probably explain
that better than I. She was a NASA Postdoctoral
Fellow of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and
a research group leader at Harvard University
Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology before coming to the University of Arizona in 2017. So, please give a warm welcome
to our two speakers tonight. (audience applauding) (footsteps falling) – Welcome, everyone. My life? – [Audience] Might as well
be (speaking faintly). – We need a mic? (audience speaking faintly) – Can you hear me now? Ahh, okay.
(audience and Betul laughing) So, welcome, everyone, to
the warm embrace of science on this cold evening. Betul and I are gonna give
you two different takes on life beyond earth, and
between us, we’re gonna address a couple of pressing questions. One, will we ever leave this
planet, and why and how? And second, what are the prospects
of life beyond the earth? What else is out there as we
venture for the first time beyond this planet? The theme of this series
is Catalysts of Change, and we’re really talking about rapid, almost unpredictable change, and to echo what you’re gonna
hear in a couple of weeks, we live on a planet where
the, for a while, luckily, it’s starting to tail off, the population was
expanding exponentially, and as you’ll hear in a couple of weeks, the combination of that
exponential growth, compounded by our exponentially
increasing footprint on the planet in industrialized nations, is leading it into some tricky terrain. On the right, you see something
familiar to all of us, the exponential growth
and computational power, which essentially makes computing free. Data is almost free, compared
to what it used to be, and this is also a very dramatic change, and you’ll hear a lot more
about this in the third lecture in this series. Now, there’s a hazard
associated with the left and opportunity on the
right, and it’s good to keep in perspective in the
middle the fact that the, the world has grown, and
as the power of the world has grown, it’s got
some good consequences. In the last 50 years, 1.5
billion people have been raised above the poverty level
due to a combination of medical technology and
agricultural technology. So, there’s some good stories here, but there’s also some hazard up ahead, so, we’ll keep our eyes
on these exponentials. Meanwhile, out in space, astronomers have their own exponential, and it
stems from the first discovery of a planet beyond our
solar system just in 1995. And you can see that
through the last decade, primarily due to the work of
one modest-sized satellite with a mirror about this big, the Kepler Satellite from NASA, astronomers have found
ever-increasing numbers of extra-solar planets, planets
beyond our solar system, and the number’s now over 4,000. Again, before 1995, zero were known. This is a brand-new field of science. So, this is the exponential growth in, that seeds astrobiology, the speculation of life beyond earth, and it underlies a lot of this lecture. And these worlds are
not all like our world. This is the topology, or
the zoology of exoplanets, now that we know there
are thousands of them, and yes, many of them are
rocky planets like the earth, but some of them are
unrecognizably different. There are worlds that
are the size of the earth but orbiting a few days, whizzing
around their parent stars with surfaces so hot the rock is molten. There are icy worlds far
out in their solar systems, or planets the size of Jupiter, whizzing around their stars in a week. Remember, in our solar system,
the closest planet, Mercury, takes three months to go around the sun. So, some of these planets are part of unrecognizable
architectures of solar systems, and they sort of reset our expectations of what might be out there,
but to cut to the chase of the most interesting question for us, these are the frequencies
of Earth-like planets based on Kepler data extrapolated through the Milky Way Galaxy
because Kepler had enough reach and enough statistics to do this. And you’ll notice right
away that one in six stars in our galaxy has an Earth-like
planet, but slightly more than that have a Super Earth. Our solar system has
four terrestrial planets and no Super Earths, so right
away, this is a new category of planets that exist
in abundance out there but not in our solar system. If you put these two categories together, you can fairly reliably
extrapolate to the number of Earth-like and
potentially habitable worlds in just this one galaxy. It’s about 10 billion,
and a phenomenal number. That is the number of potential
biological experiments in this galaxy, and since I’m
a cosmologist, I’ll remind you that in the universe, where
our Milky Way is typical, there are several
hundred billion galaxies, so if you wanna know about the number of potential biology
experiments in the universe, multiply 10 billion by a hundred
or a few hundred billion. It’s a pretty amazing number. So, what’s the next
stage in this research? Now that we have very high
body counts of exoplanets, it’s kind of old hat to
find an Earth-like planet. There were graduate students
in our department 10 years ago that could get a front-page headline out of an Earth-like planet. Not so much now. They’re released in droves, in batches. The next stage of the game is
the very difficult experiment of sniffing the atmosphere of one of these Earth-like planets,
that is, the reflected light of something that’s a
billion times fainter than the star that sits
very close to it on the sky, and trying to see in the
spectrum of that atmosphere whether you see biomarkers
or biosignatures, that is to say indicators
that a metabolism or biology microbial
exists on that planet. This is an experiment that
we’re at the epicenter of. Research groups at Steward Observatory and our giant Magellan Telescope,
which we’re a partner of for Chile, currently being constructed, we’ll have the capability to
make this kind of spectrum for more than a dozen Earth-like planets. This is a very competitive field. Also, in Steward, we have
the PI of an instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope,
the successor to Hubble, which will also do this kind of science. And this is perhaps one
of the most exciting goals in science across fields,
not just astronomy, to be able to look for the
signature of life in this way. Meanwhile, bringing you
back to earth for a moment, here’s another exponential that’s a little more uncomfortable. This is the exponential
change in the industrial, post-industrial era of
the greenhouse gasses that are changing our
planet, and I’m not gonna say much more about this,
of course, but clearly, we are on the cusp of something dramatic that we have to keep in
view and do something about. As Greta Thunberg would say, “How dare you not pay attention
to it?” anyone who’s not. So, you’re gonna hear more
about this in a couple of weeks, obviously, a detailed
dive into the biosphere, and our impact on it and how
we can better understand that, to control our own destiny on this planet because it may or may not
have caught your attention, but just two weeks ago, the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists released their update to the Doomsday Clock. It’s a metaphorical
indicator of how close we are to annihilating ourselves, and it moved as far as 17 minutes from midnight at the end of the Cold War, at a rosier time in history. Recently, it’s moved
much closer to midnight, and just two weeks ago, it was moved to a 100 seconds to midnight, the clearest warning sign
we could possibly want, and this is based on the
conjunct of our lack of control over the nuclear weapons we have, our lack of control
over the climate change that we’re causing,
compounded and multiplied by cyber-warfare and misinformation that we’re all familiar with. This puts us in a precarious place, and since my topic is partly
Will We Leave the Earth?, let me just make the obvious point that although I would like
that we’d leave the earth for reasons of pure exploration
and adventure and curiosity, there’s also the possibility
that we might have to leave the earth, but I’ll just say it right now, there is no Plan B, and
there’s no Planet B. The nearest Earth-like planets
that you’re gonna hear about are hundreds or thousands
of trillions of miles away, and no more than the
tiniest fraction of humanity will ever go to them in
the foreseeable future, so we have to take care
of our business on earth, but I’ll talk about how
we might get out there. So, what’s the state of space? I would say the state of
space and space travel is very robust. State of the union, eh,
not so sure about that. (audience and Betul laughing) It’s a, it’s a young activity. (audience applauding) Space travel, for most of its
history, has been the domain of two super-powers duking it out, a geopolitical pissing
contest if you like, so that’s a very strange
historical predicate for this activity that
could’ve been noble, could’ve been about pure exploration, and is still in some part. It’s worth remembering
that just under 600 people have ever experienced zero
gravity in Earth orbit. It’s not even that far,
to get it in perspective. Earth orbit is about
a half an hour’s drive straight up, that’s all. It’s pretty hard to do,
but that’s not that far, and just a dozen people,
all as it happens, white men from the Midwest,
strange selection effect there, have stood on another world, the moon, and it’s almost a half a
century since we were there. Most Americans were not
alive when that happened. It’s the dimmest of
cultural memories to them, from grainy black and white TV footage. So, looking at this, it
would be easy to think we’re in the doldrums, we’re not
going anywhere in space, but I think we have to take the long view and remember this is a new human activity. It’s young. Also, we shouldn’t be too hard on NASA. This is NASA’s budget over that timeframe, and the budget that NASA
had when we went to the moon was a pure anomaly, 10 times
higher and unsustainably high, and it ran and collided
with the Vietnam War, which meant the last three
moon missions were canceled. More dispiriting to planetary
scientists and astronomers is the decline in NASA’s budget
in real terms by a factor of two in the last 20 years. So, it’s unrealistic to expect
NASA to do bold, visionary, magnificent things when they’re
locked in to the predicate of an election cycle and
a diminishing budget. Interestingly, on the
other side of the world, things are different. The Chinese space program is very robust. The tick marks show the
accelerating rate of their manned and womaned launches. They’re called taikonauts,
the Chinese astronauts. The Chinese are planning a
space station, a moon base, and a Mars base, and where
their space program twinned with the military industrial complex, so it’s pretty secretive,
has been growing at the rate of their economy for decades, they can do some pretty impressive things, and so we’re witnessing a new
superpower rivalry in space. But the thing that’s interesting, and the thing I wanna
focus on is of course what’s happening in the private sector. From beginnings that
will be hard to project into the future, less than a
dozen space tourists have paid of order $10 million each to go up in the Soyuz Launch
Vehicle and spend some time on the space station. It doesn’t really seem representative of some larger activity. More interesting and
indicative was the X Prize, a suborbital competition
modeled on the Lindbergh Prize, which essentially kicked off
civil aviation in the 1930s, and that X Prize really fueled the intense commercial activity
that has led to advances in the private space program. And we know many of these players. There’s the publicity-seeking
Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic Company, and even though there are obstacles, they’re riding through the obstacles. The prototype for
SpaceShipTwo crashed a couple of years ago, with the death of a copilot and the near-death of a pilot. Now, Branson’s accepted
$30 million in deposits from essentially an A-list of celebrities who wanted to go on this
zero-gravity joyride for seven minutes ’cause
that’s really all it is. He offered all of them their money back, their deposits back, no questions asked after that catastrophe with fatality, and almost nobody took the
money, or nobody took the refund because even the average
civilian signing up for this, they know it’s dangerous. They’re willing to take the chance. It’s an adventure. Meanwhile, we have people like Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and
his Blue Origins company, a little more secretive. We don’t always know their plans. They have a launch vehicle that
can take people into orbit, and they’re preparing a moon lander. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX,
just several years ago took a huge step in the
future of space travel by showing that he can reuse his rockets by landing them on a platform in the Gulf. And that is as hard as it looks. That is rocket science,
and that is a game-changer because in the history of
rocketry up to that point, the rockets were disposed. It was very expensive. And that was Falcon 9. Musk has rockets planned that will eclipse even the mighty Saturn V and
take astronauts, we hope, he hopes, to the moon and Mars. In SpaceX documentation,
his SpaceX starship is called the BFR, and
I’ll leave you to guess what the acronym means.
(audience laughing) It’s dangerous. People will die. SpaceShipTwo, people already have died. But again, the risk is understood,
and this is what happens. The graph shows a decline
of two orders of magnitude in the fatality rate in civil aviation in its first 50 years
just due to innovation in safety technological
breakthroughs, and the same thing will happen in the private space program, so even if it seems
somewhat dangerous now, it’s gonna get safer, and even if it seems
incredibly expensive now, it’s gonna get cheaper. This is reliable. There are hazards associated
with going into space, and not all of them
are easy to anticipate. (audience laughing) The other hazards are
associated with the toilet thing in zero gravity. I’m not even gonna go there. (audience and Betul laughing) The economics are actually fairly robust, even at the beginning of this adventure. Here’s the growth rate in
the number and the net worth of billionaires, and many
of these billionaires are the players in this game, and they’ve, they’ve put real skin into the game, their own personal fortunes on the line. A good fraction of a billion dollars from both Branson and Musk. And so, they are driving the activity, but they’re clearly
projecting to an activity that could affect a
large number of people. And I got a sense of
this when I compiled data to show the average cost of
a movie and the average cost of a NASA space mission, so
this is not private space. This is NASA, and interestingly, about five or six years
ago, those curves crossed, so the average movie does now cost more than the average space mission, and if you wanna make
the analogy very direct, if you just happen to have $400 million burning a hole in your pocket, you could make a really cool
movie with a famous director about life on an exomoon,
or you could build this Kepler spacecraft and find hundreds of Earth-like planets for real. They cost the same. (audience applauding) So, is your next vacation
gonna be somewhere in the solar system? Well, maybe not your next vacation, maybe your next by two or three or four, but I think it’s gonna happen. The solar system will be our
oyster within a few decades, I truly believe, and if I were
analogizing it to something that is familiar to everyone,
and it’s strikingly similar the paths, but the timelines
were a little different, I would take the internet. The internet had a pioneering phase, and the visionary behind this,
it’s almost unrecognizable. JR Licklider wrote a whitepaper
for the Rand corporation in 1960, which, in a time
when computers would’ve filled this stage and up two stories, he envisaged the wireless
internet, data in the cloud, handheld devices like we have now. He did that in 1960. It was incubated by the
military industrial complex, and so the first people with
email in the 1970s were people in research institutes and
military installations. Civilians didn’t have it. It became a research tool. The CERN was the incubator of
the web browser, of course. And 1995, this time, in this evolution, we can pinpoint an actual year. We’re so dramatic. In 1995, two graduate students at Stanford figured out search. A strange company called
Amazon was formed. Nobody really knew what that was about. Why would you wanna sell books online? And the first internet service
providers came into being, and I would challenge
anyone who can remember 1995 to have sat there then and predicted what it would be like now. That’s how fast it’s been. That’s the exponential change. So, hopefully not forcing the analogy, we see a very similar
progression in space travel. We have the pioneering phase,
and who could’ve imagined when Robert Goddard sent his
small, liquid oxygen rocket over 186 yards of his aunt
Effie’s frozen cabbage patch in the Midwest that you would
have the mighty Saturn V within a few decades taking
astronauts to the moon. That’s the visionary. Then, incubation by the
military industrial complex, a little awkwardly in this
case because Wernher von Braun, when he was secreted away to become part of the US Space Program,
to my mind had the blood of about 15,000 Europeans
on his hands from work in the slave factories
and the V2 bombs that fell on my hometown in Britain,
but that’s how it goes. The sausages get made. We went to the moon. Goes into the research arena
with the space shuttle, which had a mix, almost equal, of military and civilian payloads, and now I’m gonna speculate. I won’t put it as pinpoint
as 1995 for the internet, but perhaps around now,
we are seeing the takeoff to the final and fourth era, when, looking back in 20 years from now, it may be unrecognizably different because of the rate of change. And so, here’s the numbers of that. Here’s the history of
launches through the Cold War, through the heart of the
space program by governments, mostly the US and the Soviet
Union, and more recently, China, and here’s the new
aspect, the commercial launches, and what’s notable is that
2017 was the first year in the entire history of the
space program, over 60 years, where there were more commercial
launches than launches by governments, a clear
harbinger of things to come. And this is the curve. This is an exponential
tube, but it’s been squashed with a logarithmic scale,
and this is the cost per kilo of launch into orbit,
and you can see that just in the last decade, that
price has been depressed, pushed down by a factor of 10,
and we’re heading to a place where it will become cheap,
so in maybe just 10 years from now, the cost will
be such that, and so, I’ll ask it as a question. I can see your hands if you put them up, so I’m gonna ask all of you,
if going into Earth orbit and having a few days at the space station or at a space hotel, they already exist, cost about the same as a high-end holiday and was as safe as driving a car, how many people would do it? Okay, and I think, I think it will be. Notice that I said, “As
safe as driving a car,” (Betul laughing)
’cause we know that driving a car is about 20 times
more dangerous than flying. I think space travel
will be safer than flying and maybe a little more
dangerous than driving a car. And at the point where
we get a space elevator, which is the Indian rope trick
of a cable flying into space such that the centrifugal
force of the earth is balanced by the weight of the cable and you have enough tensile strength in the material that it doesn’t break, it’s free. You don’t need rockets. You don’t need fuel. You just use solar-powered
elevators to go up and down into Earth orbit, and
then you can go anywhere, and that is within sight,
maybe a few decades from now. Well, I’m extrapolating a few decades, but I wanna again draw back
and take the big picture here ’cause this is a long activity. Humans have been around for a while, so I wanna ask you to
think about the analogy. It’s only a few tens of
thousands of years from the tool that let us hunt and
sustain our population on the primal earth. It’s only a few tens of thousands of years from that to the iPhone. And I’m trying, I want
you to imagine what 10,000 or 30,000 years more from the iPhone is. What will that even look like? How would we even understand that? How could we predict that? The future is deliciously hard
to predict, and moving more into the tools arena of biology,
the earth has been alive for four billion years. Most of that time, microscopic,
invisible to the naked eye, and so, in the few billion
years that it took to go from microbes to us, we must acknowledge that there are Earths out there
that have had a head start on this Earth, warmed by their
sunlight star, that’s three, four, five billion years
more than our history, so what would it like to
play, what would it be like to play forward evolution from our state for another few billion years? Very hard to imagine,
but we should imagine it because out there in the universe, it’s undoubtedly happened. This echoes the topic
of the third lecture, the exponential rate of change
in computation, but I’m, here I’m aligning it with another thing, which is the capability of
that computation to exist in a sensing package that can
understand its environment, a robot essentially, a robotic organism, and you can see the incredible
trajectory of a century of computing on a logarithmic
scale, and you look across and you see that the best
robot aligned with a computer is something like a guppy or a lizard, and that’s about right. The best autonomous robot
is not that impressive. It’s like a lower order reptile or mammal, but if you project, then
we’re only a few decades away from humanoid intelligence
in a robotic package, artificial intelligence, and
I think what’s more striking, since we’re here to talk
about biology as well, is that that progression
in 100 years has done what biology on the earth took
three billion years to do. That’s the acceleration of technology. It’s just phenomenal. And there are projects out
there to try and get us to the stars. The Breakthrough Starshot
project will use powerful lasers. These are all technologies that exist. Banks of powerful lasers,
tiny spacecraft attached to solar sails maybe a meter across, made of gossamer-thin material like Mylar, only even lighter, and that
radiation will propel them and accelerate them to a few
percent of the speed of light, maybe 5% of the speed of
light, and in this instance, go to the nearest star system, where there’s a good shot
of Earth-like planets. And so, this is an actual
project under development to send in two generations
remote sensing probes to see what there is on
hopefully Earth-like planets around the nearest star, very exciting. And why should we imagine we
were the first to do this? If anyone has done this, then
traveling at 5% of the speed of light, it’s a short
blink of an eye in the age of the galaxy to spread across the galaxy. So, it’s not a question of
whether we go physically, but if we send our robotic emissaries, which is just remote sensing,
extensions of our senses, out into the galaxy, we’re
on the cusp of doing that, leading to invert the question and ask, “Well, has anyone else done it? “Are we the only ones to do it?” And so, maybe there is
a far future vacation where you’re actually going to the stars, so to finish my part, I wanna
talk about going to the stars. Seems premature. We haven’t been to the moon for 50 years, and I’m talking about going to the stars. Is that even possible? Well, not with what we have now. All that Elon Musk and
Jeff Bezos have done is they’ve refined the
existing chemical rocket. It’s still vastly inefficient. Nuclear power envisaged
as a pulsed system, or maybe one better still,
which doesn’t carry its fuel but uses a big scoop to catch hydrogen in the interstellar medium and fuse that, these are millions of times more efficient than any chemical rocket, so that’s the advance that’s sitting there with existing technology
that we’ve not used yet. This, maybe not, this sort of
breaks the laws of physics, and trust me, the laws
of physics are a bitch. You can’t mess with them. (Betul and audience laughing)
So, I don’t think the Star Trek thing is gonna happen, but what might happen is we
might take ourselves down into a wait state using
technology in medicine that is actually maturing quite quickly for suspended animation,
and I actually think it’s less likely to be in
the sense of humans taken into a cryostate in pods as on the left, and this is a little creepy, I understand, but you’ll just stay with me on this, the most efficient way to do
it is to have embryo starships, so you have cryofrozen
embryos, and that, again, can be done on the earth, so
we know this technology exists, and then, in a much
more efficient package, you can send this to the next star system. Now, this would be
curated by robot nannies, who would have to bring
these embryos through to their development phase when they get to their destination and
on to their home planet, and since I know that
I’m creeping you out, I’ll say that Betul has
(audience laughing) a much better way of envisaging this, which is instead of sending
people in pods or embryos, we just send the ingredients for life and then see what happens,
and that’s a good way to go. So, we have this system,
this fabulous system, which I will use as
the icon of exoplanets. It’s the Trappist-1 System, and it has seven terrestrial planets, three of which are Earth-like
in their habitable zones, and to set up the
transition from near Earth, me to Betul, imagining her on Trappist-1, let me give you a little scale model. So, if I’m sitting here,
illuminated by the sun, that spotlight overhead, on that scale, the furthest that most humans have been, the 600 in Earth orbit,
is literally hairs’ width. It’s tiny, tiny scale. That trip to the moon that a
dozen people did, it’s this. The solar system is on the
scale you’re sitting in. Jupiter would be about halfway
back through Centennial Hall. The solar system would fit pretty much within the U of A campus, and if I imagine my compadre
Betul is at Trappist-1, illuminated by her
not-quite-sunlight star. It’s actually a dwarf star. Then, that distance to
that fabulous system, where we might find Earths and biology, is 20,000 miles away. That’s how far we have
to go before we sleep. And so, let me hand over to Betul for the second part of the talk. (audience applauding) – Thank you, thank you. Thank you, thank you very much. Chris outlined the
technological developments that are available to us to
explore what is out there, and if we exploit this carefully,
we might be transforming to a true space civilization
for the first time for our entire human
history, and I want to ask this simple question: why do we do this? And you might too: why do we bother? What is waiting for us out there? Why do we want to explore space? And that is the question
that I would like to explore with you today, and I will give you three very quick reasons why. Reason number one:
exploring space may allow us to acquire space-based resources,
and any resource that we can obtain directly
from space is a resource that we can keep untouched and protected here on our own planet. Reason number two: settling, surviving, and visiting other worlds
may allow us to improve our problem-solving skills. We may cooperate with one another better. We may communicate with each other better, and we can solve problems
better as humans. And reason number three is the
reason why we are here today, and that’s exactly what
I wanna talk about. Exploring space and life in other spaces, in other places may actually
allow us to understand the likelihood of life’s
existence elsewhere in the universe at the larger scale. And that’s really the crux
of what I’m interested in. There are two questions that
are on the slide right now, and I think they’re intertwined. Are we alone? And how did life on Earth begin? So, a quick show of hands
before I drill down: how many of you here think that we
are alone in the universe? Show of hands. (Chris chuckling) Wow, okay, how of you
think that we are not alone in the universe? Look at this. So, what is interesting
about this question is I think regardless of
the answer that you give, it is astounding. So, none of you thinks that
we are alone in the universe, as far as I could see,
but imagine that we were. Okay, if this is indeed the
only life in the universe, and if you are alone in the universe, then this makes biology
the most unique science in the entire universe. (audience laughing) This is the only place to study biology. That’s mind-blowing if we are alone. You can study physics. You can study geology. You can go and study rocks. You can study chemistry
pretty much anywhere, but this is the only
place to study biology, and if we are not alone in the universe, then we are assuming that
life and biology is pervasive across the entire universe, pervasive. That means that life
can occur more than once and maybe frequently,
but then let me ask you, if that’s in fact the case, and
seems like almost all of you believe that that is,
why don’t we see life originating frequently
right here on this planet, if it is so easy for it to happen? Why do we think that life originated once, and billions of years ago, and that is it? And scientifically, why can’t
we create life in the lab? Why can’t we make it? Where is it? Let’s start by exploring
whether we are alone in the universe. This is a question that we’ve been asking since we gained consciousness. We developed technologies such
as the Kepler Space Telescope to finally explore what is
outside of our doorstep, what is outside of our solar system. We’ve been exploring planets. We found that there are
thousands of planets out there, and we didn’t even survey the entire sky. We directed the telescope
towards a small fragment in the entire sky. Imagine that this is the entire sky. We really looked at only maybe
a space that will be covered with a single hand of yours, or maybe two. And despite that small, small
area that we peeked through, we found that there are
thousands of planets out there. Some resemble our own planet
Earth in terms of size, in terms of temperature, and
some resemble other planets in our solar system in terms
of size and other properties. This is very exciting, and I will take you to a particular one that
Chris also just took you to. It’s the Trappist-1 System,
and the reason why I want to take you there. Now, we’re traveling
about 4D light years away from our own system. We are greeting by a red
dwarf star that’s much smaller than our own sun, and
orbiting this are four, I’m sorry, seven terrestrial planets, three of which are planet Earth size. It’s marvelous. If you stand in one of them,
you can see the atmosphere of the other on a clear day, I suppose. But is that a good reason
to visit this system? We have technological abilities, but we don’t have limitless resources. We need to find the perfect
system so that when we invest on it and when we visit it,
we have reason to believe that something is waiting
us for there to explore and understand in terms
of life’s existence, so where do we go? We don’t wanna just survey the sky, right? And I will argue today that it
is unlikely that we will find whatever it is that we are looking for, and specifically life itself in this case, without understanding how life
originated on our own planet. We need to understand the
conditions that gave birth to life here if we think that universe is pregnant with life as we speak. How did life on Earth begin? Sadly, I won’t be giving
you the answer, not yet, but you hired me, so I’m working on it. (audience and Chris laughing) (audience applauding)
So, I’ve been only two years. (Betul laughing) Well, let’s go to “Star Trek.” – Come here. – [Betul] Q explaining Captain Picard. – There’s something I want to show you. – [Betul] How did it all begin? – You see this? (suspenseful music) This is you. I’m serious, right here,
life is about to form on this planet for the very first time. A group of amino acids are
about to combine to form the first protein, the
building blocks (laughs) of what you call life. (suspenseful music) Strange, isn’t it? Everything you know,
your entire civilization, it all begins right here
in this little pond of goo. (audience laughing) – He’s not buying it. (Chris and audience laughing) But he should, actually. The reason I show you this
is because this is one of the most accurate
description of life’s origin. As far as it goes, there are
no continents back there, and they think this is
happening in France. I wanted to correct that. But in, and then, I think in
entire science fiction media out there, this is one of the
most accurate descriptions of life’s beginnings. We are imagining inhabitable
planets, volcanoes, really hot temperature, and, and a goo in which life originated. And we’ve been asking
these questions way before we started making movies. Going back to ancient Greece,
Aristotle, one of the, I think, he explored
life’s origins, I think, in more than one way, but
what I wanna highlight today is the concept of wider
principle: a thing that embodies the natural body, the
whole potential of life. So, we go way back. We’ve been asking these
questions philosophically, theologically, and then comes Darwin. Not only he asks the
question of life itself, of what life is, he develops
ways for us to understand and study the complexity
of life and how complexity of life changes over
time, and he, in fact, writes about life’s origin only once, where he talks about a warm pond, a goo, that life may have originated in, and that’s the only line I
could find of all the readings that I made from Darwin where he talks about the origins of life. I guess one revolutionary
idea at a time. (chuckles) And then comes, we are traveling
way back in the future. Now, we have studies
that are done by Franklin and her colleagues, studying the molecules such as DNA of life. So, now, we are moving forward
from describing what we see around us to drilling
down and taking picture of what makes life possible
at the molecular level. We now understand DNA. We know that it’s inherited. It is shared across all
Terran life good as we know. And since then, we’ve been
exploring what is inside the cell in so many different ways. We can study the molecules,
the micro-molecules, the proteins, the enzymes, the
DNA, RNA, and how they move. In time, we can take their pictures. We can record them in action. But relevant for origin of
life studies, we did not stop just by looking at what
is inside the cell. We moved forward and asked
can we create the molecules that make up life without life itself? Can we create the molecules that make up biology without biology? And this is what Stanley
Miller and Urey asked in their infamous experiment
where they simulated and generated an early Earth
condition in terms of lightning and hot temperature and
generated amino acids in a flask. A variety of different amino acids that we still study today. So, great, not only we can
understand life, describe it, and study it, study its properties, we can also drill down and study life at the subcellular level,
but we don’t only stop there, we also make these subcellular
components in the lab without life itself. But does that make life? Does generating amino acid make life? Do generating RNA/DNA molecules make life? No, it doesn’t. Question still remains. How can groups of molecules
exhibit life-like behaviors? We want to move forward from
making amino acids in the lab. We can do it all day. That’s not life. Do you see a fish crawling out of it? Flask? No, sorry. So, let’s travel back to the origins, and I’m taking you all
the way back, right, so we are going all the way
back to the formation of Earth. That’s about 4.5 billions of
years into the past, okay. We have stable atmosphere fairly rapidly within the first 800 million years. We see that happening, and
now we have the Hadean Earth that is from Greek, hellish,
as you saw where Captain Picard visited that was not very habitable. That’s really what we think
Hadean Earth looked like, how everything it looked like. And this is a planet, our own planet, that is packed with abiotic chemicals. Abiotic chemicals are still around us, but we also have life. Let me look around you. But back then, it is
only abiotic chemicals. And this is exactly then a miracle occurs around 3.8 billions of years ago. We have the occurrence of the first cell. So, somewhere between 4.1, 4.2 billions of years
to 3.8, life emerges. This is where the miracle happens, and that’s what we want to understand. How did a pool of abiotic
chemicals transitioned into life-like behavior, or
behavior-exhibiting group of chemicals, and then how
did life emerge from this? And this is what life does. We’ve been studying this for
a long time, and this is not even the whole picture,
and this is a big screen, and I did my best to fit as
much information as I can. This is the height, this
is all they allowed me. This is it, and you’re
looking at inside of you. This is happening in human systems. A small segment of human metabolism. All these arrows are
representing the pathways, ins and outs, a lot of
chemistry going on here. This is happening inside of
you, so we can study life. No problem there, and
we went a little step further from that, from
studying life to defining it. What is it that we are trying to find? So, over a little decade ago,
a group of NASA scientists, they’d get together, and
they wanted to understand whether they can even define what life is. And I’m imagining a week
long, the minimum debate about this, and they came
up with a final definition. “Life is a self-sustaining chemical system “capable of undergoing
Darwinian evolution.” And what is really
inspiring me in this quote is that I can see Aristotle in there. That’s the question, right? I can, I can see Darwin in there, natural selection, Darwinian evolution. I see Rosalind Franklin in there. We are looking for inheritance,
self-sustainability. I see Miller and Urey in
there, so all these centuries of questions that we’ve
been asking finally led us to defining life in one sentence. And we know a bit more than
that about life, all right, not just what life is
at the cellular level, but what life is at the broader level. Life exhibits itself at
the hierarchical level. You are going from molecules
that you can imagine as at the bottom. There’s an undeniable increase
of complexity as we go up. From molecules to cells, to cell groups that then form organisms. Populations, communities, ecosystems, and then finally, biosphere. And each of these layers,
these aren’t these, we are not talking about the
building with different flats, we are talking a dynamic structure. Each of these layers are
communicating with another. There are relationships that
connect each of these layers. These are self, there
are self-similar patterns of interaction, and
each level is somewhere between a machine-like rigid structure. Life is not like a machine. It’s not rigid, but
between a rigid structure to a more flexible and
chaotic, very chaotic system. We don’t want that either. And there are rules with
being levels as well, the way they interact with one another, and what’s fascinating is someone like me, who studies life at the molecular level is that what happens at the
molecular level, at the bottom, can have a direct impact
at the whole ecosystem of the whole biosphere. That’s magnificent. So, let’s go back to our motivation. Are we alone in the universe? Right, that’s what we want to know. So, looking at this, first
of all, how many of you think there is life here? Okay, well, we want to understand
whether there’s life here, so let’s, let’s together
join me, and let’s create, we have all the resources
for it, let’s imagine that. And we built a machine,
and we sent this machine to another planet, and
this is what the image, and let’s make sure the machine
or robot has plans, right? So, this is the picture
that the machine sent us, and all together, right
now, we will explore whether there’s life here or not. All right, so the
machine sends this image, it transmits this to us. What do we do? What’s that? Drill down, okay, so let’s make this mission more sophisticated. Let’s drill down. Well, I’m sure we’ll get
a lot of rocky structure, so there’s a little
geochemistry going on here, but guess what, spoiler
alert, there’s life here. There’s life on these
rocks that are feeding off of these rocks. There’s supply of life
inside these springs that I’m showing you, but
we can’t see it by this, through this picture. So, let’s imagine that this is the image that this machine sent us
because if you just did what you said, we drilled,
and the lens recorded whatever is going on and
transmitted this movie to us, would you be convinced that this is life? How many of you think this is life? Right, yeah, spoiler alert,
another one, it is not. (audience laughing) It’s life-like. It’s funny, isn’t it, when you
feel, like, this gut feeling? I feel like there is life in there. Well, congratulations,
you’re an astrobiologist. But, but it isn’t true. In fact, you’re looking
at a group of liposomes that are interacting with one another that are creating spherical
circular structures that are then organizing
into larger groups, and so on so forth. Interesting, let’s think about
why you thought this is life. It’s moving. There is some structure, right? And think about what I
just showed you, hierarchy. There is some hierarchy here. Small molecules got together,
formed larger groups, and then larger groups were formed, but they were still
connected with one another. There is self-similarity in each layer. So, we created a little
ecosystem, but guess what? It’s not life. It’s not capable of evolving. These are what we call proto-cells. These are blank cells made
out of entirely lipids generated by Jack Szostak’s laboratory, who is a Nobel laureate,
who studies origins of life right now, who is working
on making these cells encapsulate certain molecules
that are capable of evolving. But this is not life. However, there is a
life-like behavior in there, and this is exactly the problem. As I said, we can generate
these building blocks, we can make amino acids in
the lab, we can make DNA, we can synthesize
proteins and run peptides. We can do it, so how do we go
from a mixture of chemicals to a rather simplified version
that I’m showing you here, a life-like behavior? How do we do this? And interestingly, based on my reading, it seems like, at least in the literature, once we generated these
amino acids in the lab, like in, through Miller-Urey experiments, people thought that this would
be rather straightforward. How difficult will it be from
going a mixture of chemicals to a chemicals that form
some sort of a network that then behaves like
a biological network? How can this, how hard can this be? Turns out, harder than we thought. Makes it interesting, right? The question, if you drill down,
then, can a chemical system even exhibit a life-like behavior? What am I even talking about
when I say chemical system behaving like life, right,
and do the chemical systems that led up to living systems show similar organizational attributes? So, let’s look into this. I will show you first
another detailed version of what I’ve previously shown you about the hierarchy of life. We are looking at simpler,
at the least complex forms energy input through subcellular
micromolecules to cells, and then we go to, all the
way to the biospherian level. In this case, I’m sure
we can get populations on biology and chemical cycles. Each of these arrows represent
some sort of interaction or rules that are taking
place in each layer and also how that layer is
connected to the layer below it. And what is interesting is that the layer beneath the top layer is
required for the top layer to be present. They build on one another. And we did a survey of literature and we did some experiments in collaboration with Tokyo
Institute of Technology since I started here, and we
came up with multiple reactions as outputs of our own
experiments, and then we surveyed all the other chemical
reactions that we could find as sensible in the literature, and what we finding, and
this is the recent article that we just submitted for peer review that chemical systems can, in fact, look like a biological system in terms of the hierarchical organization. Similar to life itself on the right, we are looking at energy
inputs, primary radicals, and getting more and more
complex as we move all the way to the top from a simple radical chemical to a more complex chemical structure that are still able to
interact with one another. But think about what
NASA says, and I have to. I work for them. Needs to evolve. Does this evolve? No, but again, I think I have some time to make this happen. So, what we are looking
for is a chemical system that is able to evolve not only
respond to the environment, reproduce, sustain itself,
get more complex in time, and do all of these abilities
that life itself does. So, why do we want to do this? What is in it for humanity
aside from solving the biggest problem that we
have: how did life begin? So, for that, I wanna
give you a small example of how can we use this information, and this is, again, a very
recent article that came out only, I think, last month,
that shows how we can use origin of life chemistry
for real-life applications, so now think about, let’s say, computers. Our life depends on them more than I think we want our lives to, but they do. And think about how much
energy it is required for a computer to run
the most simple thing. Imagine opening your laptop,
putting it on your laps, and checking your email. Okay, maybe you did a
little bit more than that. You went on Facebook, and, you know, it’s been two hours now. And you know what, your laps are burning. The computer is hot. That’s, it can’t handle. Even the simple email-checking
and a little bit internet surfing, there’s
a lot of energy consumption by this electronic that
you’re using right now, the computing system, okay? So, we want to know that there,
we can extract information from biology to use as an
alternative computation source. What I mean is that no chemical system, no computer that we
have right now on Earth can do what a biological system can in terms of computation. We are, as living organisms,
are far more advanced than any computer that we ever built. I will give you a simple example. Think about yourselves as individuals. It’s about eight p.m. Think about what you have
done over the last two hours. You got in your cars. You drove here. You tried not to get into an accident. Good for you. You climbed the stairs. You walked. You processed the
information around in terms of the weather. It’s gonna be cold tonight. And you came here. You listened to the music. You looked at all the
room, and you listened to Chris talking down there. You’re listening me talk. You’re processing the
information I am providing you. Every word that I’m
saying, you’re computing it in your mind, trying to understand it. You’re computing as I speak,
and you’re just one person. Now, think about this
whole entire room and what are we capable of computing in just during the past hour or two? Now, think about this
whole campus, this town. Think about this country. Think about our entire
population as humans, how powerful that is. Biology is a better
computer than the computer, and exploring the origin of life chemistry and the life-like behavior
in the chemical system is in some ways exploring
the potential and the power of life in a chemical system,
and what I mean by that is the ability of life to compute, ability of life to process information, ability of life to innovate, ability of life to tinker. We are looking for those
properties in chemical systems, and engineers out there, like this study, are
studying origin of life and figuring out the
chemistry that enables or potentially may enable life and using that to build computers that are made entirely out of chemicals. No electronics, nothing; it’s chemistry. This is a very simple example. This is the first example,
and I’m telling you you will be seeing more of this, so the theme is the Catalyst for Change. You’re looking at it. This is it. Right, so we are able to
use chemistry as computers. This is a very simple example. If you’re processing what’s out there, it’s a very simple environment
that they generated, but it worked. And how can we then use this
information for biology? And I will show you a very brief video talking about the possibilities. – [Presenter] The bee is an
incredible biological machine. (organs buzzing) This creature’s tiny neuron computer makes trillions of calculations (wings buzzing)
as it maneuvers its body with speed and precision. The bee colony
(bee buzzing) is a self-maintaining,
self-replicating system programmed to endlessly continue (bees buzzing)
its task of survival. Through our understanding of the DNA code, we are gaining the ability to create new living machines
(metal squeaking) to our design specifications. (footsteps falling) The natural world is filled with building blocks
(metal creaking) of the DNA software, which combine with engineering
(wings flapping) to open breathtaking possibilities.
(machines whirring) Fully unlocking this code
will bring us the greatest technological advancement ever
known to our civilization. (motors buzzing) (intense music) Imagine modifying the DNA code of plants to grow living buildings.
(computer beeping) We can revolutionize
construction, architecture, and gardening, creating
entire cities out of living, organic material.
(bird chirping) The most powerful computing
system known to us is the brain. (wires crackling) Once we become capable (wires crackling)
of programming and organizing neurons, we can create new supercomputers, (computer squeaking)
dwarfing our current systems in power and efficiency. This paradigm in technology
(computer whistling) and evolution can expand life’s ability to colonize and populate
our solar system and beyond, (energetic music) sending living spaceships
and organisms modified and engineered to live in different extraterrestrial
environments. This new self-aware and
self-guiding evolutionary process can take life to the
next level of existence. (audience applauding)
– It’s exciting, isn’t it? Another way of studying
the beginnings of life and making sense of the chemical mixture that is available to us or
that was available to us once, my laboratory builds
molecular time clocks, as we like to call them,
and utilizes modern biology to extrapolate our way
back to the beginnings. We want to resurrect, so to
speak, the first molecules, and understand their behavior in the lab, and we want to evolve
these molecules, and we do, to study the repeatability
that is involved in life’s evolution for
the specific molecules that we generate. And one of this molecules that we’ve been studying is RuBisCO. The reason why I wanted to
highlight this one very briefly is because we, as humans and
majority of the organisms, we consume carbon, we need
carbon to be generated. We need biomass to be generated for us. What we wanna know as
synthetic biologists, and that’s a part of the
work we do as well, why? Why is carbon fixed the certain
way that we see it today? Are there any alternatives? So, instead of trying to
engineer what is available to us today, we go back to
the origins of these molecules using a variety of different methods, and then try to resurrect their versions that they were once,
billions of years ago. We want to access to their
own origin, so to speak, and explore their own
chemical space to see if there are other possibilities. And the goal here isn’t
necessarily to look for RuBisCOs out there. I, in fact, do not expect
RuBisCO to be waiting for me to find it on another exoplanet. Would be cool, but I don’t think so. However, we want to
understand how the certain chemical mixture would give
rise to certain micromolecules that profoundly impacted
our own atmosphere and life on this own planet, on our own planet, so we use origins of life chemistry, and what happened billions of years ago, as a source to understand
the possibilities. And I wanna end up with an idea that, that I’ve been wanting to talk about, and I’m, I am writing a
mini-paper about this, but I wanted to share with you. I’m in good company. So, the thing that I’ve been thinking as a thought experiment
is that what if we, instead of sending life somewhere else, and you may be familiar with the concept of panspermia that suggests
that life may have even been transferred to our own planet. Instead of sending life elsewhere and planting these seeds elsewhere, why don’t we send chemicals
that may evolve into life in response to the very specific condition of whatever the planet that we are sending these chemicals to? And we will most likely
find a lot of planets that have no life. That’s also a very
difficult question, right? We are not only looking
for life’s existence, but we are also looking
for life’s absence. We wanna be sure when we
send that machine elsewhere, “Tell me, yes or no. “Do you see life or not?” We are a bit bossy, I guess. We wanna know, so when
the answer comes to us, what is it that we are looking for? We wanna quantify life, and
this may be one way, right, sending chemicals through, and
I will assume perhaps Amazon will start delivering packages
to exoplanets at some point, (audience laughing) through a delivery box to
a planet of our choice, and then let that planet
do its thing and coevolve with whatever the chemical
pools that we are sending that will flourish life that
is specific to that planet, so we are not contaminating
other planets with our own life. We are just sending chemicals. With that, I would like to say thank you. Thank you for this opportunity, and thank you for coming tonight. (audience applauding)

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