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Science with the stars

Paul E. Alers / NASA via AP file
Stephen Hawking, shown here during a 2008
lecture, made a virtual appearance at Arizona
State University's Origins Symposium.

Who says scientists aren't party animals? Thousands turned out this week to watch some of the world's best-known scientists let their hair down at Arizona State University's Origins Symposium.

Monday's public party was organized by ASU theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss to inaugurate the university's Origins Initiative, a multidisciplinary program focusing on scientific explanations for the beginnings of life, the universe and everything (including consciousness and culture).

A theme like that can be deadly serious - and deadly dull as well. But Krauss brought in the brightest luminaries of the scientific set to add sparkle to the discussion.

Some sparkled even though they couldn't be there in the flesh: British physicist Stephen Hawking, who is arguably the world's biggest science celebrity, was stuck in California under his doctors' care due to a chest infection. (This sort of thing has happened before, and the medical condition is not expected to be life-threatening.)

To make up for his physical absence, Hawking put in a "virtual appearance" via an audiovisual slideshow that featured his trademark robotic voice - and his equally trademark wit. "My doctors have insisted that I do not fly," he said, "so I thought about getting some new doctors."

The theme of his talk was a familiar one: why humans should set up settlements in outer space. Hawking sketched out a long-term strategy that involved setting up a base on the moon around 2020 and sending a human mission to Mars around 2025 - which is a more ambitious timetable than the one NASA currently has in mind.

Hawking acknowledged that many saw human spaceflight as something of a "wild goose chase," but he said the same thing could have been said about Christopher Columbus' voyages to the Americas. "Spreading out into space will have a greater effect," he argued. "It will completely change the future."

He bemoaned the fact that NASA's budget has declined as a share of U.S. gross domestic product from 0.75 percent in the heyday of the '60s to 0.12 percent today - and implied that doubling the budget would make a good start toward the goals he had in mind. "Isn't our future worth a quarter of a percent?" he asked.

The twists that made the presentation special weren't just the deep thoughts, but the light banter as well. For example, Hawking drew big laughs from the audience of 3,000 when he explained why he didn't put much credence in reports of flying saucers ("Why would they only appear to cranks and weirdos?") or why he thought the emergence of intelligent life occurred only rarely ("Some would say it has yet to occur once").

Wonder and wit were whipped together in Monday's other presentations as well:

Discussing life's origins in a Hawaiian shirt
One of the day's other headliners was British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who dressed down for a conversation with Paul Davies, a deep-thinking physicist and biologist at ASU. "I don't get a chance to wear my Hawaiian shirt at Oxford," Dawkins explained.

  Biologist Richard Dawkins sports
  a Hawaiian shirt in Arizona.

The talk turned to one of the biggest scientific mysteries on Earth: How did the DNA-based machinery of life get started? "DNA must have been put together by something like Darwinian natural selection," Dawkins speculated. But even RNA, the presumed precursor to DNA, is so complex that it seems unlikely to have arisen spontaneously. "This has been called the Catch-22 of the origins of life. ... Somehow we've got to think of a way around that Catch-22."

Religious believers might say "God did it" and leave it at that. That's definitely not Dawkins' style: He's been an outspoken champion of scientific skepticism and atheism. On Monday, however, Dawkins didn't want to spoil the party mood. He steered clear of talking about religion, even when a questioner tried to draw him out.

My son, the Ph.D.?
Religion came up in a different context when Krauss sat down with Columbia string theorist Brian Greene. In the past, the two physicists have clashed over whether string theory might provide the answer to physics' ultimate questions, but their encounter on Monday was more like a personal chat than a debate. At one point, they discussed how they grew up to be scientists, and Krauss recalled that "Mom wanted me to be a doctor."

"Are you Jewish?" Greene asked. "Yeah," came Krauss' answer. "Me too," Greene said.

They also traded ammunition for future debates. In the past, Krauss has said string theory seemed to be headed toward becoming a "theory of nothing," but on Monday he told Greene, "it's the best bet at this point."

Greene looked offstage and said, "Technical crew, can you just cut out that snippet and send it to me?"

As the conversation continued, Krauss said the state of string theory was really too unsettled to merit using the word "theory" (a scientific term that has long been misunderstood by non-scientists). "I'd agree with that," Greene said. Then it was Krauss' turn to check with the sound crew. "Could we get that?" he asked.

Scientific stars galore
Monday's party lasted for more than 12 hours, and it'd probably take that long to recount all the highlights. Here are just a few more samples of the scientific star power:

  • Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker explored the "cognitive niche" that humanity occupies in the scheme of things. Through the millennia, humans found that they could use technological know-how to counter the stronger foes they faced. But there's an evolutionary cost to our big brains, which may help explain why other species haven't horned in on our cognitive niche. "With this big bobblehead balanced on top of a vertical body, it's almost a recipe for disaster," Pinker said.

  • ASU paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson focused on the critical points of human evolution - beginning with our ancestors' divergence from other primates at least 6 million years ago, running through the age of the australopiths (like "Lucy," the 3.2-million-year-old fossil he found 35 years ago), and continuing with the emergence of modern humans about 150,000 years ago. All these key transitions occurred in Africa, he noted. "Every single one of us in this room is an African," he told the crowd of thousands.

  • Geneticist J. Craig Venter talked about his project to create a synthetic genome - a challenge he said was more difficult than his past efforts to decode the human genome. It's the difference between reading and writing, he said. Eventually, pieces of genetic code could be used as standard components to build the molecular-scale factories of the future. "I think this is going to be the start of one of the most exciting phases of biology, because this can affect the world around us," he said. "We are using these, for example, to make artificial fuels from CO2 and sunlight.

But wait ... there's more to come: The Origins Symposium also featured a panel of Nobel laureates who looked ahead to the frontiers of physics and biology, as well as a gathering of science-savvy communicators who reflected on the sometimes sad, sometimes wonderful state of science literacy. We'll delve into those subjects in future postings.