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Science puzzlemasters to debate 'What is life?'

February 10, 2011

7 p.m., Feb. 12, ASU Gammage

Featuring Dawkins, Venter, Hartwell, Davies, McKay, Altman

Six of the world’s leading scientists whose life work is exploring the puzzles of life will take the stage at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 at Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium to confront such big questions as: When, where and how did life originate? How can we find out? Can and should we create life in the laboratory?

The Great Debate: What is Life?” is the second in a series of great debates hosted by the ASU Origins Project. Tickets are $5 and $10, plus a facility fee, and are available at ASU Gammage Box Office,, 480-965-3434, or

“The subject of our second great debate, What is Life? cuts to the heart of what the ASU Origins Project is all about,” notes Lawrence Krauss, an ASU cosmologist and theoretical physicist who directs the project. “We are bringing together a panel of some of the world’s most renowned scientists, ranging across fields from astrobiology to genetics to evolutionary biology, to address fundamental questions that are both at the forefront of modern science and also of profound interest to the public.”

Joining Krauss on stage to debate the subject will be evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, biologist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, Nobel laureate Lee Hartwell, cosmologist and theoretical physicist Paul Davies, NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay and Nobel laureate Sidney Altman.

The debate will include a moderated discussion with Roger Bingham of the Science Network. Panelists also plan to answer questions submitted on Facebook and Twitter. A book signing will follow the discussion.

“We hope to address issues such as, How did life originate? Is there life elsewhere in the universe, and if so, how can we find out? Can and should we create artificial life in the laboratory?” says Krauss.

The on stage debaters will include:

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and popular science writer. Dawkins is the International Cosmos Prizewinner for 1997 and the first Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. His bestselling first book, “The Selfish Gene,” transformed thinking about evolution and the function of genes.

J. Craig Venter, a nationally known entrepreneur and scientist. Venter is the founder and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute and founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc. In 1998, Venter founded Celera Genomics to sequence the human genome.

Leland “Lee” H. Hartwell, the Chief Scientist at the ASU Biodesign Institute’s Center for Sustainable Health, where he is a Virginia G. Piper Chair in Personalized Medicine. Hartwell, along with R. Timothy Hunt and Paul M. Nurse, received the Nobel Prize in 2001 for their discoveries of a specific class of genes that control the cell cycle.

Paul Davies, an internationally acclaimed theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and author of more than 25 books, including last year’s “The Eerie Silence.” Davies, a professor in the ASU Department of Physics, heads up two pioneering research institutes: BEYOND, the Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, a cosmic think tank; and the exciting new Center for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology.

Chris McKay, a planetary scientist with the Space Science Division of NASA Ames Research Center. McKay, whose research focuses on the evolution of the solar system and the origin of life, is one of the world’s leading researchers studying Saturn’s giant moon Titan.

Sidney Altman, the Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale. Altman won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989 with Thomas Cech for their discovery that RNA (ribonucleic acid) in living cells is not only a molecule of heredity but also can function as a biocatalyst. Altman is an Origins Visiting Professor at ASU.

“It is hard to imagine a more interesting and expert panel, and, a more interesting topic for discussion,” says Krauss, a Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Physics in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He is the only physicist to have received the highest awards from all three major U.S. professional physics societies. His popular publications include “The Physics of Star Trek,” “Quintessence,” “Atom,” “Hiding in the Mirror,” and due out this year, “Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science” and “A Universe from Nothing.”

“The Great Debate” is sponsored by the ASU Origins Project in collaboration with the Science Network, J. Epstein Foundation and the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

This second Great Debate is connected to a workshop at ASU on "The Origins of Life: The RNA World Revisited." Scientists and scholars from around the world will join ASU researchers to examine such topics as the habitability of early Earth, the origins of the ribosome, the possibilities of life elsewhere and of alternative forms of life, and aspects of artificial life.

As an organization focused on getting people to explore their place in the cosmos, Krauss notes that the ASU Origins Project is naturally drawn to asking big questions about the origins of life. “This Great Debate event and the associated scientific workshop that will take place this weekend at Arizona State University will further establish the Origins Project tradition of bringing the best minds on the planet to ASU to push forward the frontiers of knowledge while reaching out to the public on key questions of interest.”

More information about the ASU Origins Project is online at, or at 480-965-0070.