The Science of Origins: Studies Across All Disciplines

A first-of-it-kind symposium on origins brought together 80 scientists to discuss and collaborate on these intriguing puzzles

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Our deep need to delve into how things began is the inspiration for a new academic initiative. Scientific American columnist (Critical Mass, which begins with the September 2009 issue) and theoretical astrophysicist Lawrence M. Krauss, head of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University, organized the first Origins Symposium, held in April 2009. The event drew 80 scientists from a variety of disciplines, many of them Nobel Prizewinners. We asked Krauss to describe the results of the symposium. You can also read Scientific American’s reports about panels held during that event in stories about the origin of the universe and the origin of humankind. Check out the ASU Origins Symposium video archive of all the talks, too.—The Editors

Questions about origins directly confront the mysteries associated with our existence, our past and our future. Consider:

     * How did the universe begin?
     * Is our universe unique?
     * How did the laws of physics arise?
     * How did life arise?
     * What are the dynamical processes that govern evolution?
     * What is the origin of modern humans?
     * What is the origin of human uniqueness?
     * What is the origin of disease?
     * How does consciousness arise?
     * How do human institutions arise and develop?
     * What will be the technologies of the future?

Such questions provoke fascination and heated debate whenever they arise and are, at the same time, central to forefront research at the edge of human knowledge. For those reasons, they resonate across all academic disciplines and among the general public.

The Origins Initiative at Arizona State University builds on a tradition of transdisciplinary activity, and an unusually strong existing research emphasis on origins issues—from evolutionary biology to nanotechnology and from human institutions to the universe. Our mission has a two-pronged thrust. By bringing together scholars from different disciplines, we will explore how a broader and more inclusive perspective may arise in addressing these fundamental questions. At the same time, progress in addressing key fundamental disciplinary questions can occur by also having a critical mass of experts from within a given field.

Conference Highlights

We decided to inaugurate our initiative with an experimental BANG, by gathering 80 of the world's most eminent scholars from fields ranging from physics to psychology, planetary science to philosophy to the Origins Symposium in and around Tempe, Arizona, in April 2009. We put them together for three days of panels to focus on key questions. The idea was to encourage out-of-the-box discussion about forefront puzzles, removed from the standard presentations most of these people were used to giving, and to force the conversations to be both broad and intelligible to a wide audience of scientists and scholars.

We didn't know whether such a novel program would succeed, and it took a while for everyone to get used to this format. But the results exceeded our wildest expectations. Not only was it inspiring to learn about the remarkable developments in fields remote from one's own area of expertise, it became clear that various questions are amenable to broad-based attack. The symbiosis between fields was also evident. Questions of human uniqueness are relevant, for example, to the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life. Knowing that the earliest modern humans probably resided in a very small colony on a beach in Africa poses interesting new challenges to understand concepts of group selection and various genetic predispositions to disease, nutrition, and so on. And the debates among cosmologists about multiverses and anthropics made it clear to many of the other scientists attending the meeting that this field is ripe for new useful new ideas.

In addition to the scholarly panels, two other highlights should provide solace to those worried about the public’s interest in science. Fully 3,000 paying members of the public filled an auditorium for 12 hours to listen to the world's most well-known scientists, and 1,000 inner-city high-school students stayed, of their own volition, for two hours at an after-school event with three of the Nobel Laureates who were also attending the symposium. Both prove that, with exciting science, as with the baseball stadium in the movie “Field of Dreams,” if you provide it, they (the public) will come.


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