How Did Life Begin?

My 3-part series of popular science articles on the history of origin of life research has been published in ORBITER magazine. Part 1 presents a “pre-history” of how the origin of life became a real scientific problem in the first place (for many centuries it actually wasn’t!). Part 2 presents a brief overview of 20th century scientific progress on origin of life research, from the idea of a primordial soup to that of an RNA world, and beyond. Finally, part 3 presents a brief history of autocatalytic sets, from Stuart Kauffman’s original idea published in 1971, to some of the most recent insights.

Sunset

I’m staying in a little village called Lackenberg, to do some hiking in the area. After arriving, I walked around a bit in and around the village, and then watched a beautiful sunset from the balcony of my hotel room.

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A Partial Lunar Eclipse

On Tuesday 16 July, 2019, there was a partial lunar eclipse visible from most of Europe. I decided to spend the night in a hut halfway up a mountain near Vienna to watch this eclipse, and invited some colleagues to come along. We were lucky that it was a mostly clear sky that evening, making for excellent viewing from just over 1200m up.

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Beating the Avatar Blues

When the movie Avatar was released in late 2009, a strange thing happened with many people who saw it. They got depressed, even suicidal. It wasn’t because they disliked the movie, but because they liked it so much, they wanted to live in a gorgeous, almost utopian, world like Pandora, rather than on planet Earth. Pandora, the fictitious alien moon portrayed in the movie, has an amazing natural beauty, and human-like inhabitants (the Na’vi) living in peaceful harmony with it.

Read the full piece on ORBITER magazine

The Power of Snooker

A particular mathematical relationship known as a power law has been observed in many day-to-day situations, from the frequencies in which words are used in natural languages to the connectivity distribution in Facebook friendship networks. As it turns out, though, such a power law can also be found in snooker statistics. And if the amazing Ronnie O’Sullivan continues to produce centuries at the same rate, the mathematical correspondence will be even better!

Read the full story on Plus magazine

The February 2019 Supermoon

A “supermoon” happens when a full moon occurs around the same time that the moon is at its closest point to the earth (perigee) in its elliptical orbit around our planet. This means that the full moon will appear extra large and bright. In fact, it can appear up to 30% larger and brighter compared to the opposite, a “micro-moon”, when the full moon occurs around the same time that it is furthest away from the earth (apogee). Last night happened to be the brightest supermoon of 2019.

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The Chat Noir Cabaret

My good friend Charles Tichenor has been playing the piano since he was a little kid. And he’s still going at it tirelessly at his weekly Chat Noir Cabaret show at the Los Magueyes Mexican restaurant on Burro Alley in Santa Fe, NM, USA. Here’s a short slide show to give an impression of his performances.

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A Home for Complex Systems Science

In complex systems science, the notion of complexity is often summarized with the phrase “the whole is more than the sum of its parts“. This expression can be traced all the way back to the early Greek philosopher Aristotle (Metaphysics, Book VIII, 1045a.8-10) and mathematician Euclid (Elements, Book I, Common Notion 8). It was therefore appropriate to have a conference on complex systems in Greece. As part of a delegation from the Institute for Advanced Study of the University of Amsterdam, I attended this conference to learn more about recent advances in complex systems science, and about some ancient Greek history. Read more

Workshop Report: Developmental Biases in Evolution

“Developmental bias is a manifestation of a much more fundamental principle, and is the norm rather than the exception”, according to one scientist. “Developmental bias is a misleading term and we should get rid of it”, according to another. Both were in the same room, at the same time. So what is developmental bias, what role does it play in evolution, and why do we even care? These questions were the focus of an interesting and spirited workshop, the third in a series of EES project meetings, held recently at the Santa Fe Institute. As with the first meeting, I was able to sit in on this workshop, like a fly on the wall, and listen to the presentations, arguments, and debates. Here’s what I learned…

Read the full piece on the EES Blog

From an Ecologist’s Nightmare to a Mathematician’s Dream

“Since you are a computer scientist, I have an optimisation problem for you!”, my colleague said, half jokingly. As an ecologist, one of the things my colleague studies is invasive plant species. The question he was facing is how to reconstruct the most likely routes along which these species travel when they invade new territory, based on historical records on when and where they first appeared. As it turns out, this question is an instance of a known mathematical optimisation problem called the minimum cost arborescence problem.

Read the full story on Plus Magazine