Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Origins Symposium Part 3 of 5

The third part of our five part series on last week's Origins Symposium by our southwest correspondent, Alaina Levine.

Part 3: Other highlights, scientifically-based and not

Discussions of life in the Universe: Everyone knows about the Big Bang. But Paul Davies, Director of ASU's BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, discussed some big holes in theories about life on Mars and Earth. He stated that in the histories of the two planets, both have been "contaminated" by rocks bouncing off one planet and hitting the other and vice versa. So if life is ever found to be on Mars, he claimed, we will not be sure whether that life is original to Mars or not.
There was much discussion about what other kinds of life, besides microbial, might exist in the Universe. Davies suggested that there might be another form of life on Earth that we just have not yet discovered, and "until we find that there's life on Earth that’s different, we cannot make the assumption that there’s life elsewhere (in the Universe)," he said. Wow. Kind of puts that Drake equation in a whole new light.

Arguments and humor amongst the scientists: During the Nobel Panel discussion for the public on Monday, moderator Ira Flatow (host of NPR’s Science Friday) recalled that on his very first show 20 years ago, a caller commented that listening to his show was the first time she had ever heard scientists arguing. Well, I've heard scientists argue before. I have even heard them scream and throw things at each other over points of scientific contention. Luckily at this conference, while the Symposium was marked by many arguments over the theories of our origins, all opinions were generally expressed with respect, and at times, a certain level of lightheartedness and humor. This was especially fun to witness.

For example, during the first panel discussion with the pregnant title "How far back can we go?, University of Chicago professor of physics Michael S. Turner established that 380,000 years is the farthest we can see into the past. Later on the same panel, Jim Peebles, the Albert Einstein Professor of Science Emeritus at Princeton University in New Jersey (and one of the predictors of the cosmic microwave background radiation) questioned Brian Greene "Is string theory going to help us look back farther?" Greene responded "I don't know", and Peebles humorously countered with "Is that your (whole) talk?" causing a wave of chuckles to swell across the audience.

When Nobel Laureate Steve Weinberg suggested that chemistry is not a separate science and that "there really is only one science - physics," there was a bit of an uproar, but again one characterized by laughter.

Lawrence Krauss, scientist and humorist: Krauss, in case you’ve never heard him speak, is a funny guy. During his public speech on Monday, which he delivered with great skill and flair, he zapped the audience with a number of terrific one-liners:
"Scientists want to be wrong, or more importantly, they want their colleagues to be wrong."

"Using Einstein's equations, we're going to solve the problem, so I've locked the doors."

"Hubble was a lawyer and then became an astronomer, so there is in fact hope for everyone."

"The Universe began 13.72 billion years ago, although not in Texas, where I was just speaking to the school board."

What if the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) finds nothing? During Friday's session on NPR, Flatow asked the panel what kinds of particles they would like to see when the LHC gets turned on. Of course, the Higgs Boson was the response by several scientists on the panel. But Steve Weinberg, Nobel Laureate and Professor of Physics at University of Texas at Austin had a different view. "The better outcome would be not to find the Higgs Boson," he said. In fact, "it would be really boring to find the Higgs Boson." Turner translated: "What Steven really wants is clues of where we should go next," he explained, and there was soon a discussion about how if nothing is found when the LHC starts running, that’s not a bad thing - except to the funders, said Greene with a laugh. They might not like to hear that the machine they bankrolled for so many years produced nothing, and still the scientists are fascinated by the result.

The discovery of Lucy in the glimmer of the sun: Donald C. Johanson is the Founding Director of ASU’s Institute of Human Origins. His is a paleoanthropologist who is most famous for discovering the 3.18 million year old hominid skeleton known as "Lucy". Johanson conveyed during his public speech about the day he found her bones. He was about to leave an area near their current dig site in Africa when out of the corner of his eye, he recounted; he saw a piece of bone glistening in the sun. He immediately knew it was part of an elbow. And when he turned around and looked more closely at the site, he was visually able to follow a line of bones up a hill, all of which turned out to belong to Lucy. Her name came from the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" which was playing in the camp that night as he and his colleagues celebrated their find.

The graciousness of the public: Monday's public festivities consisted of 12 hours of lectures and panel discussions held in an auditorium with 3000 seats. The headliner was to be Stephen Hawking, and even though he ended up not being able to attend, many people stayed the entire day and into the evening to hear his "virtual" address. I am sure there were people who did not attend when they heard Hawking was going to be a no-show, but there were plenty of seats filled, and this was not lost on Krauss. At the end of the day, after 9:30pm, he concluded the Symposium by declaring it a success, and thanked the audience for coming and their graciousness. Their presence, he exclaimed, "showed what we were trying to do is worthwhile, and we will continue to do these types" of activities, he said.

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