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.

2nd Conference on History and Philosophy of Astrobiology

Aim of the meeting is to deal with the transition of non-living to living matter, how chemical processes evolve into biological ones and the onset of biological evolution as well as the tree of life. Scientists and students from humanities and natural sciences will convene to discuss these questions that engaged mankind since centuries.

The conference is co-organised by the Nordic Network of Astrobiology and the EU COST Action ‘Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth and in the Universe’.

It will also constitute the fourth annual meeting of the Nordic Network of Astrobiology. The conference will be organised by David Dunér (Lund University, Sweden), Wolf Geppert (Stockhholm University, Sweden) and Christophe Malaterre (UQAM, Canada).

Höör, Sweden, 8 – 10 May 2015

Klara joined the Action!

Life-ORIGINS (TD1308) is a Trans Domain European COST Action investigating the origins and evolution of life. Life-ORIGINS is dedicated to the scientific investigation of the origins and evolution of life on Earth and habitability of other planets.

The objective of Working Group 5 (WG5) History and Philosophy of Sciences is to assess, from a philosophical perspective, of how the boundaries between chemistry and biology are being transformed as a result of a shift towards increasingly systemic or holistic approaches in the quest for a naturalist explanation of the origin of life.

The Action has specifically excluded the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life in its portfolio. Creationist theorems are also outside the Action’s remit.

Habitability in the Universe Conference in Porto

Just delivered a talk on Astrobiology in the Age of Social Media: The ‘science of the unknown’ and the sociocultural dimension of transformative ideas to the participants of Habitability in the Universe: From the Early Earth to Exoplanets conference in Porto, Portugal.

It’s a priviledge to be here. This conference is the first Conference and WGPP (Working Group and Project Planning) meeting of the TD1308 COST action ORIGINS.

According to the website, this European action gather 30 countries and 150 scientists working in astrophysics, astrochemistry, planetology, geochemistry, biology, paleontology, space science, engineering, philosophy and history of science. And, if I may add, also in anthropology or social studies of science.

The action addresses three basic questions that fascinate scientists and the general public:

  1. Where, when and how did life emerge and evolve on Earth?
  2. What are the conditions under which life can exist?
  3. Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe and, if it does, how can it be detected and identified?The action has specifically excluded the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life in its portfolio

‘Astrobiology, history, and society’ book has received a strong review in Choice

I’m pleased to announce that Astrobiology, History, and Society has received a strong review in Choice, a periodical used by librarians to decide which books to acquire.

Outstanding Title!
51-3815QH327 MARC
Astrobiology, history, and society: life beyond Earth and the impact of discovery, ed. by Douglas A. Vakoch. Springer, 2013. ISBN 9783642359828

capova-astrobiology-history-and-society-vakochRecent confirmation of observational data relating to earthlike extraterrestrial planets has resulted in the publication of numerous books commenting and speculating on the probabilities of the existence of other locales where intelligent life might reside. This raises many issues. Do scientists understand with what frequency self-replicating molecules arise? Does evolution tend to converge in such a way as to make intelligent life a frequent likely outcome when life forms? What might be the effect of the discovery of other intelligent life on humankind’s own social fabric, particularly organized religions? Few scientists have the broad expertise to comment on all of these questions. Publishing a collection of essays by specialists bypasses this difficulty. This book is a very well-balanced, detailed analysis of the subject. The individual essays maintain just the right level of uncertainty without descending into personal preferences disguised as good scientific judgment. The long introduction to the history of discussions of extraterrestrials treats both scientific and social views. Chapters relating to the possible social impacts of a successful discovery are especially interesting, raising questions about some of people’s own fundamental philosophic perspectives. This is one of the best books on the subject; it belongs in all college libraries.

Summing Up: Essential All levels/libraries.

K. L. Schick, emeritus, Union College (NY), doi: 10.5860/CHOICE.51-3815CHOICE, 2014 (51:07)
Copyright 2014 American Library Association

NASA Astrobiology Conference 2012: Abstract and Poster

The poster abstract ‘The Detection of Extraterrestrial Life – Are We Ready?’ for AbSciCon – NASA Astrobiology Science Conference 2012: Exploring Life: Past and Present, Near and Far is available online.

Abstract Body: The paper offers a novel perspective on the scientific search for life beyond Earth, based on the ‘outsiders’ point of view approach that anthropology of sciences has proposed. It sheds light on the ways in which alien life is imagined and theorised in order to assess the possible reaction of scientific community and general opinion to the detection of other life forms.

The papers is based on the findings of my PhD research that conceptualises the extraterrestrial life hypothesis as a significant part of the general world-view, constantly shaped by the work and discoveries of science. It draws from the ethnographic fieldwork conducted over two years in the UK that combined interviews with scientists (astrobiologists, physicists, and astronomers) with data collected from the global ‘online’ community. On the base of this data, the paper offers an insight into the current concepts of other life as understood, perceived, and interpreted by the scientific community and popular culture. Go to AbSciCon NASA website to continue reading …