Are We Alone?

NASA's first artist in residence comes to Tucson to ponder the question of other life in the universe

There is only one known planet in the universe that supports life (Big hint: We're on it!), but that doesn't stop scientists from wondering if there are others, or from studying that possibility.

In part, those questions have given birth to the interdisciplinary project Astrobiology and the Sacred, which is in its third year at the University of Arizona, and will welcome guest speaker Laurie Anderson this week.

It must be noted that Anderson--a popular musician, composer and performing artist--will not be performing at the event on Wednesday, March 28, at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography. She will simply be delivering a lecture on the subject of "aesthetics, storytelling and ways of seeing the universe as illuminated by her time as NASA's first artist in residence."

The 200-plus tickets to Anderson's lecture were claimed in less than 48 hours of becoming available last month, so most of us will not be getting in--but a live video feed from the event will be shown in the auditorium at the UA's Harvill Building. There will be room there for about 370 attendees, and those will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Anderson's topic should dovetail nicely with the focus of Astrobiology and the Sacred, said UA astronomy professor Chris Impey, who directs the project. The project is funded by an almost-$500,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, which studies character development, science vs. religion and the free-enterprise system.

The UA project also includes academic work, ongoing studies and scholarly publishing, in addition to its centerpiece, the lecture series. Several of the lectures in this spring's series have come and gone, but four more remain beyond Anderson's.

Impey, who specializes in observational cosmology, will deliver one of the upcoming lectures (listed below), focusing on his work studying galaxies and massive black holes.

His explanation of the nature of astrobiology is on the project's Web site:

"Astrobiology is the scientific study of biological processes on the Earth and beyond. It connects research in physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and planetary science. After centuries of speculation, we will soon have the capability of detecting ancient life or pre-biotic chemistry in the solar system, microbial life on extra-solar planets by its alteration of global atmospheric chemistry, and technological civilizations throughout the galaxy. Success in any of these areas would profoundly affect social discourse at all levels, reawakening religious questions in a new context."

This series will bring together "a new kind of interdisciplinary networking community that will encourage dialogue, research and publication from the participants. Astrobiology has a firm scientific footing and it makes an excellent platform for gathering scientists, humanists, philosophers and theologians in an exploration of the role of humans in the universe."

As fascinating as it sounds, it also could be pretty heady stuff.

In a phone interview earlier this week, Impey assured potential attendees that the lectures are all oriented "for the public and nontechnical thinkers. This is designed for a general audience. We have gotten everyone from undergraduate students to retired people."

He further explained that, "We use the idea of life in the universe, which is astrobiology, as a thread, and we get academics, researchers, artists and visionaries from various walks of life to kind of react to the possibility of other life in the universe. We'll have as part of the series talks by scientists and theologians as well."

Already, Impey is looking at next year's series.

"In general, in this third year of the series, we are considering life in the largest context of the universe as a whole. We were just granted a fourth year for the series, so we will be back next spring, bringing the focus back home. The title of that series will be Mission to Planet Earth, " Impey said. "We'll be looking at life on Earth and the problems ... with the only example know of: our own."

Following Anderson's talk this week, those who have further interest in the subject can attend any of the following lectures. It's a safe bet that getting admitted to these lectures should be much easier than scoring a ticket to Anderson's.

Two of the speakers "will in different ways address the spiritual dimension of life universe," Impey said. "I'll push the envelope and ask how strange life may be."

The later lectures are:

· Bill Stoeger, a leading cosmologist and Jesuit priest, will explore the interface between scientific and spiritual views of the universe on April 4.

· Marty Hewlett, a n emeritus professor of biology and medicine, will examine the artistic and spiritual inspirations for science, especially biology, on April 11.

· Impey will look at the science of astrobiology and ask: "Why are we so lonely?" on April 18.

· George Ellis, 2007 Templeton Research Fellow,

is a professor of applied mathematics and noted cosmologist at the University of Cape Town. He will give a series of lectures on complexity, emergence and the fundamental basis for life on April 24-26.

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