Frontiers of Life: Terrestrial and Extra-Terrestrial Prospections

I am very much looking forward to giving a talk at Frontiers of Life Terrestrial and Extra-Terrestrial Prospections workshop in London tomorrow!

Confirmed speakers: Gisli Pálsson (University of Iceland), Sophie Houdart (Université Paris X Nanterre), Jane Calvert (University of Edinburgh), David Dunér (Lund University), Klara Anna Capova (Durham University), Perig Pitrou (Laboratoire d’Anthroplogie Sociale/ Collège de France), Jane Grant (Plymouth University), Emmanuel Grimaud (Université Paris X Nanterre) and Valentina Marcheselli (University of Edinburgh). Organizer: Istvan Praet.

18th of June 2015 – University of Roehampton (London)

Meeting Abstract: The question of life is a perennial problem that has puzzled philosophers since Antiquity. If one considers its modern scientific conception, one notices that life’s limits continue to shift and expand in remarkable ways. Current research in robotics, synthetic biology and artificial life redraws and questions traditional boundaries between what is alive and what is not. Life’s terrestrial origin is now thought to go back at least 3.5 billion years, as indicated by fossilized microbial mats. Its spatial distribution is more extensive and its resilience is much greater than generally assumed until a few years ago: biological organisms have been discovered in undersea volcanoes, in the world’s driest deserts as well as in subglacial lakes, and airborne microbes have been captured in the stratosphere.

What is more, experiments conducted at the International Space Station in the European Space Agency’s BIOPAN programme have established that microscopic animals capable of suspended animation, such as tardigrades, are unexpectedly tolerant to the conditions of outer space. All this has inspired researchers in the field known as astrobiology to reassess the notion of ‘habitable environment’, to rethink what it means to be ‘alive’ and sometimes even to challenge the standard neo-Darwinian picture of the biological world head-on. Astrobiology, a veritable melting pot of a great variety of natural sciences, is arguably one of the most fertile grounds if one looks for creative reformulations of traditional neo-Darwinism. What remains underappreciated is that this development is very much in line with recent advances in the social sciences. In anthropology, several initiatives have been taken to rebuild our understanding of life and its evolution on entirely different ontological foundations. The perspective of ‘biosocial becomings’ (Ingold and Palsson 2013), which explores alternative theoretical languages in relation to life, is one notable example of this trend.

The assumption here is that something can be gained from bringing both strands of thought together; the goal of this conference is to test the waters and to establish what that may be. The ethnographic exploration of astrobiology and planetary science – and of its practitioners’ observations, experiments and conceptual acrobatics in relation to life more specifically – is a first step. It is as important, however, to consider issues of scale and perspective. A key aim is to improve our understanding of how scientists make the universe palpable and how they apprehend both the very large (e.g. planets) and the very small (e.g. the inner structure of meteorites) by means of diverse kinds of telescopes, spectroscopes, microscopes and a variety of other instruments. Philosophers of science tell us that observatory techniques, and even objectivity itself, have a history. Space researchers may claim that their observations and measurements are objective, yet their ideals of objectivity change over time and depend on the specific context (or sub-discipline) in which they are applied. An astrophysicist may have a slightly different standard of objectivity and a subtly distinctive definition of life than –say – a geochemist or a microbiologist. The way in which planetary scientists frame their questions – whether it is about subsurface oceans, alternative biochemistries, ice volcanoes, extra-terrestrial lightning storms, putative microfossils or the analogy between the Earth’s hydrosphere and the ‘methanosphere’ of Saturn’s biggest moon Titan – and in how far these respective entities are considered to be ‘alien’ or ‘familiar’ are always based on specific but usually unacknowledged conventions. By explicating these conventions, this conference intends to document how specific ideals of objectivity are currently evolving within astrobiology and fundamental research on life.

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