University of Cambridge: Cambridge launches new Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe

The Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe will bring together an international team of scientists and philosophers, led by 2019 Nobel Laureate Professor Didier Queloz.

Thanks to simultaneous revolutions in exoplanet discoveries, prebiotic chemistry and solar system exploration, scientists can now investigate whether the Earth and the processes that made life possible are unique in the Universe.

The University has recently launched the Initiative for Planetary Science and Life in the Universe (IPLU) to enable cross-disciplinary research on planetology and life in the Universe.

Building on IPLU’s activities, the new Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe will support fundamental cross-disciplinary research over the next 10 years to tackle one of the great interdisciplinary challenges of our time: to understand how life emerged on Earth, whether the Universe is full of life, and ask what the nature of life is.

The Centre will include researchers from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, Department of Earth Sciences, Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Institute of Astronomy, Department of Zoology, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Divinity, and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

“The Centre will act as a catalyst for the development of our vision to understanding life in the Universe through a long-term research programme that will be the driving force for international coordination of research and education,” said Queloz, Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Cavendish Laboratory and Director of the Centre.

Research within the Centre will focus on four themes: identifying the chemical pathways to the origins of life; characterising the environments on Earth and other planets that could act as the cradle of prebiotic chemistry and life; discovering and characterising habitable exoplanets and signatures of geological and biological evolution; and refining our understanding of life through philosophical and mathematical concepts.

The Centre will collaborate with researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder (USA), University College London, ETH Zurich (Switzerland), Harvard University (USA) and the Centre of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey (USA).

“Understanding the reactions that predisposed the first cells to form on Earth is the greatest unsolved mystery in science,” said programme collaborator Matthew Powner from University College London. “Critical challenges of increasing complexity must be addressed in this field, but these challenges represent one of the most exciting frontiers in science.”

Carol Cleland, Director of the Center for the Study of Origins and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, also collaborator on the programme said: “The new Centre is unique in the breadth of its interdisciplinarity, bringing together scientists and philosophers to address central questions about the nature and extent of life in the universe.

“Characteristics that scientists currently take as fundamental to life reflect our experience with a single example of life, familiar Earth life. These characteristics may represent little more than chemical and physical contingencies unique to the conditions under which life arose on Earth. If this is the case, our concepts for theorising about life will be misleading. Philosophers of science are especially well trained to help scientists ‘think outside the box’ by identifying and exploring the conceptual foundations of contemporary scientific theorising about life with an emphasis on developing strategies for searching for truly novel forms of life on other worlds.”

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