Nowadays Arizona State University is hosting a symposium called the ‘Origins‘. It has been going on since the 2nd of this month and will end today. As you will find if you check the list of speakers, the meeting was highly prestigious, perhaps too prestigious, and the quality of the discussions were phenomenal. I learned a lot about some of the leading ideas on cosmology and string theory. But since I was made aware of this symposium just a few days back, I was able to watch only a handful of discussions. Yeah, that’s the other thing, you can actually watch the whole debates live online, for free: here.

For instance, shortly (in like a few minutes, 21.45 CET) you can watch Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter and Lawrance Krauss debate about…well who knows what. This is a great way to end the symposium. So aren’t you lucky that I’ll also be liveblogging the whole event over here as soon as it starts? I realize that’s a very short notice, but anything is better than no notice, right? Feel free to join in. I don’t expect to have any online followers (of my liveblog, that is. I wouldn’t follow me too, if there was a live transmission of the event that I’m liveblogging about) but you can always read what I wrote even when the meeting is over. So, here we go [in brackets are my comments]…


23.37 Transmission is showing indications of starting. Soothing music being played. I have a headache, though. Not helping.

23.39 Updates take longer than can be afforded in a liveblog. Wonder if that’s gonna be a problem. Perhaps I should update en masse.

23.41 Also I’ll not hesitate to butcher the English language as I go along. Gotta choose your battles, I say. 3 minutes.

23.44 Switched to IE for better handling. Google Chrome is nice, but IE feels better right now.

23.53 Still not started. Did I get the time wrong? Come to think of it, I just googled “Arizona time” to convert the local time. Arizona State University cannot not be in Arizona, cannot it?

23.56 Soothing music feels like anything but soothing. BTW, this thing is supposed to last for 3 hours. Buckle up.

00.00 All right, here we go. Krauss is the moderator, apparently.

00.03 No wait! He just spoke for a while (basically thanked the audience) and went off stage and some lady is doing the introductions.

00.05 Note to self: Stop being hasty when liveblogging: Krauss is back.

00.06 Oh dear, he just introduced Paul Davies (physicist) and went off stage. Davies is introducing Dawkins, talking about his resumé.

00.07 Dawkins is on, somewhat underdressed. Talking to Davies. Where the hell is Venter?

00.08 Davies asks for a 1 minute summary of Darwin’s theory. Dawkins begins by apologising for his attire. Answer: That’s why we exist, why we are here. Descent with modificiation, change over generations, branching of pedigrees via Natural Selection was Darwin’s point.

00.10 Q: If Darwin was alive, what could we tell him? A: Genetics. The one thing Darwin got wrong. Modern genetics became modern by 1) Mendel 2) Watson&Crick. Modern genetics is thoroughly digital, Darwin thought it was blending. Nat. Sel. wouldn’t work if it was blending. Particulate digitial inheritance is more like it. That way we can determine definite ancestries.

00.12 Q: If Darwin was so off regarding genetics, how was he spot on regarding everything else? A: He was mathematically illiterate, he was a naturalist. He formed tunnel vision to solve problems. The journey of Beagle helped. He had a huge [number of] correspondences.

00.14 Q: Science is not just a body of wisdom, it is an ongoing process. What are the hot topics on evolutionary theory? What in 10 years? A: First, the origin of life. Second, exact tree of life. Huge amount of work going on for that. Digital genetics is huge help. Today you can’t get away with being non-mathematical. Darwin wouldn’t get a grant today (joke).

00.17 Q: What are the practical applications of evolutionary theory? A: Much of agriculture [artificial selecetion], bacteria resistance.

00.18 Q: Life seems magical. Stupid atoms create all this complexity. Physicists have underlying maths for their fields. Will there be a time when biologist write laws like physics? A: Darwinian selection is kind of fundamental. Whatever an organism is doing, they are doing the one same thing: maximizing gene propagation. I can’t imagine a formula for the ‘cell’, though.

00.21 Q: Darwin himsef refused to speculate on the origin of life. What do you think? A: Once nat. sel. gets going, the rest is easy. But the key first step is some form of hereditary material. DNA is too complicated for this, a precursor must have existed. Much simpler system of heredity. That’s the the Catch-22 of life: DNA is both too complex and too simple. [see RNA world]

00.24 Q: Was the origin of life likely or unlikely? A: Interesting Q. Another way to put it “are there other life forms on the universe?” If it was likely, universe should be teeming with life. My feeling: I don’t know, both possibilities are interesting. If we are unique, origin of life must have been too improbable thus our experiments are doomed to fail. I don’t think that is the case, though.

00.28 Q: Are we on the verge of making life on the lab? That’s not gonna tell us about “our” origin, is it? A: Right. I ask chemists to come up with alternative biochemistries. Can we dispense with proteins, nucleic acids, both? Catch 22 is this: DNA is a replicator. Protein acts as a executive branch, it builds bodies. Proteins can assume literally 3D shapes, they coil up. And that is determined by amino acids, which are 1D. And they are determined by DNA. It is translated by a simple look up dictionary. It forms 20 aminoacids, which coils up to make up proteins. And that catalyzes 1 particular chemical reaction.

Every cell will have different enzymes activating particular activities. Protein’s role of catalyst and DNA’s role of replicator must both be present in a cell for it to sustain life. That’s the catch-22 problem of the origin of life. See, again, RNA World.

00.33 Q: Everything starts with 1D genetic material. Can it start with 2D? A: 2 is possible, 3 is not. Reading out is a problem. DNA is transcribed into RNA, and RNA is translated on to something equivalent of a tapereader. Now 2D genome could work: you could scan it. Not 3D though, how could you ever scan it?

00.35 Q: When life gets going, is it inevitable to have intellegent life? Your intuition? A: Maybe, maybe not. Week empirical evidence, that we are not visited, suggests that it is unlikely. Fermi paradox: where is everybody? Radio waves of aliens should have reached us by now. Universe is large, maybe too large to ever make contact.

00.38 Q: Natural selection is blind, cannot look ahead. Nature tends to stick with the innovations that work. Can nature converge on intelligence? A: Intermediate stages must be beneficial for the organisms, natural selection is blind. But brains overrule that and see ahead, once they become big enough. Then a whole new kind of evolution gets going.

What features on earth have evolved many times, that’s interesting to ponder. For instance, eyes have evolved over 40 times on earth. Intelligence seems to have evolved only once, ditto language. That doesn’t rule out other planets, but it may mean that it is dificult to discover.

00.43 Q: Lamarck was wrong, but can Lamarckian evolution be the case on other planets? A: No. A theory of evolution must explain adapation. Inheritance of acquired characteristics cannot explain adaptation. Because the subtlety of an eye cannot be improved by using more of your eye, a lens doesn’t get clearer that way. Wheras with Darwinian principles, anything, no matter how detailed how cryptic how concealed from the outside, natural selection will act upon it and improve it. Lamarckism is just not good enough.

00.47 5 minutes mark. Questions from the audience. Q: On religion. Don’t you think the way you make your points is offensive? A: Davies dismisses it on grounds of being irrelevant.

00.48 Q: Your views on LUCA? A: The Last Universal Common Ancestor is the ancestor of all “extant” living beings, not the first alive organism. Every living being use the same genetic code, barring one or two tiny exceptions. That suggests a LUCA. But there may have been different origins of life. Davies is working on that.

00.50 Q: What if we found that intelligent aliens are ignoring us for not being clever enough? A: Interesting, nothing to add.

00.51 Last Q: Comment on epigenetics. A: It’s trendy, sometimes regarded as tantamount to Lamarckism, that’s wrong.

00.52 Adjourned. Dawkins went off stage. Davies is introducing Craig Venter.


Craig Venter owns the first company to sequence the human genome.

00.55 He’s on. This one is not in a discussion format, Venter is making a speech. Starts with a slide titled “Big Questions”.

00.57 What is life? Can we digitize it? How extensive is it?

00.58 First genome sequenced in 1995. A few years ago complete human genome was sequenced.

00.58 There are 6.5-9 billion variants in our species but only 1-2 percent diversity among us (I might have gotten that wrong)

00.59 Talking too fast, I miss Dawkins.

01.03 Basically talking about how diverse life actually is. It is diverse, take my word for it. I’ll try to catch up when he moves on to the next topic.

01.08 Nope, his speech seems heavily dependent on what he talked about earlier.

01.18 Not only that, it also requires considerable amount of prior knowledge on genetics. Sorry to be of little help.

01.27 Yep, this speech is a lost cause. Not awfully difficult but impossible to liveblog. And it ended. Q&A time. Let’s see how that’ll go.

01.28 Q: Do you use fractal codes for your sequences [what?], secondly, tell us about the ethical aspects. A: Bioethics is pretty knew. First question unanswered.

01.30 Q: Comment on unintended effects of your applications. A: It is critical not to release synthetic organisms to nature.

01.32 Q: What kind of new technics have you created? A: Davies: Read the book. Venter: New math algortihms to sequence DNA in large scales.

01.34 Adjourned. Intermission, till 01.50. Coming up next: Lawrance Krauss. He talks even faster! I need a drink.


01.49 I love Krauss, he is a great science popularizer and communicator. Check another one of his discussions with Dawkins here. Davies is introducing him.

01.54 Also in a speech format, oh boy. Evidently he is going to talk about the eventual fate of universe.

01.56 Einstein discovered special&general relativity. That was a static kind of universe. That was the scientific wisdom of his day. [shows stars on screen]. Gravity should cause stars to collapse. That was a problem. Einstein [thought that he] solved that problem [shows an equation on the screen that reads “left hand side = right hand side”] left: curvature, right: energy and momentum.

01.58 To prevent collapse Einstein added a constant to the left hand side: cosmological constant. But that didn’t solve the problem. Because the universe turned out not to be static after all. So you don’t need a repulsive force to prevent collapse. That is said to be his grandest blunder.

02.00 But someone else convinced the world of it: Edwin Hubble. He made many discoveries, like the expanding universe. He watched the galaxies, catalouged many of them. If you look at other galaxies, you see that they are moving away from us. So we must be at the center of the universe, right? No. This is true for every observer in the universe [explains graphically], things also move away from them as a function of distance. 3 times away, 3 times faster it moves away from them.

02.02  That changed everything, it even had religious repercussions. Universe had to have a begining: turned out to be 13.7 billion years.

02.03 How do we know that the universe is expanding? First, we measure the speed of the galaxies: Doppler effect accounts for that. But that is easy. Hard part is to measure the distance. [Shows Hubble’s original data]. His data shows the earth to be something like 1.37 billion years old. That’s wrong by a factor of 10.

02.06 We measure distances with something called “standard candle” [graphic].  When a star explodes (when it becomes a supernova) we can determine its intrinsic brightness and thus its distance. A remarkable discovery. Now the factor of uncertainty is reduced to %10 from 1o.

02.08 So Einstein’s equation is rewritten (left-right). And it represents a new form of energy. What type of stuff can account for that energy. The answer is: nothing.

02.09 If you remove eeeeeverything from space, there is still energy there. In Quantum Mechanics empty space isn’t empty.There are virtual particles. How do you see them? Indirectly. The proporties of atoms change [shows a picture of the inside of an atom. wow.]

02.11 So we can calculate the energy of empty space. And when we calculate that, the answer is: a gazillion times larger than all the energy in the universe. That’s the worst prediction in physics. But the answer should have been zero, because symmetries of nature can cancel this number out.

02.13 Now the question becomes what actually is the energy of empty space? We go out and try to measure it. Long story short [his remarks, not mine] we can weigh the universe.

02.14 Our universe can be open, closed or flat. In a closed universe, the universe should recolapse. In open, it should keep expanding. Within the last 10 years we have weighed the universe.

02.15 [Shows galaxies] Lots of galaxies. They like to hang out in clusters. So if we can weigh clusters, we can understand the total weight of the universe. How do we do that?

02.16 Einstein tells us light will bend in the presence of gravity. And we can use that to weigh the universe [shows image]. Most of the stuff in this cluster is between the galaxies. That is a definite proof of dark matter. [see also bullet cluster and here for a detailed explanation of the rationale of this method]

02.18 Dark matter is not like ordinary matter. It’s everywhere, but we don’t detect it.

02.19 Intrduces omega. And that indicates an open universe. But that cannot be, because the big bang creation can only imply a flat universe.

02.19 So how do we actually measure the geometry of the universe?

02.20 Introduces non-Euclidian geometry. Pays lip service to the mathematicians that first thought of this concept. That’s how our universe actually is, non-Euclidian.

02.22 Moves on to Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. When we look to stars, we look back in time. So if we look far enough, we should see the Big Bang. But we can’t, because beyond some point the universe is opaque. Microwaves come from all sides of the sky uniformly, and that’s the proof of the Big Bang.

02.24 Talks about the specifics of the measurements of the geometry of the universe. Is it open, closed or flat? The answer: the universe is flat [still non-Euclidian. Not to be confused.], just like theorists have thought. Talks first about COBE and then WMAP.

02.26 But if it is flat, %70 of the energy is missing. Where is it? It can be in empty space. [That’s reminiscent of Einstein’s idea]. That fits the data.

02.29 That is a crazy, insane, unbelievable picture of the universe. Universe is made of %5 ordinary matter [you and I and everything ever detected in any experiment], %25 dark matter, %70 dark energy. You are cosmically insignificant. So much for the idea that universe was made with us in mind.

02.31 So what in future? It’ll be different than we thought it would be. This is the brief history of time: the universe is expanding, the energy of empty space is constant [doesn’t diminish as a function of volume].

02.32 Talks about the anthropic principle, why is the universe the way it is?

02.32 Can there be other consistence forms of physics? We don’t know. Why is the universe fine tuned for life? Anthropic principle: we hade to be in a universe that is fined tuned for life.

02.34 If dark energy persists, the universe will speed up. And in far future observers will see only a single galaxy and come up with a totally wrong picture of the universe. That’s poetic.

02.35 To sum up, you are cosmically insignificant and the future is miserable. But it is interesting, much more interesting than fairy tales.  [shows a picture of the Earth] This is a pale blue dot and we live on it. Even though the future is bleak, we should enjoy our brief journey and keep exploring. That’s what science is all about.

02.36 Q&A. Q: Isn’t an expanding baloon a false analogy for the expanding universe? A: It is. That’s why I didn’t use it. A baloon expands into space, the universe doesn’t expand into anything. Better anology is infinitely long bed sheet that is being stretched.

02.39 Q: Given the lack of experimental data, is string theory wishful thinking? A: I don’t think so [accompanied with a long reply].

02.41 Adjourned. Next: Panel discussion with Baruch Blumberg, Walter Gilbert, Sheldon Glashow, David Gross, John Mather, Frank Wilczek. Wow, I’m tempted to stay, but I guess I should call it a night. That was fun, must do it again.