NEWS: BLOIS 2000 (Frontiers of Life) Conference

From: Robert J. Bradbury (
Date: Fri Jul 07 2000 - 07:35:59 MDT

I thought some of you might like a report about the Blois 2000
Frontiers of Life (

I missed the first two 1/2 days because of an air traffic controller
strike in Paris, so I can't comment on those sessions, which is
unfortunate because there appear to have been some interesting
nanotech related talks.

Most of the Evolution and Maintenance of Life in Extreme Environments
and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life session was organic chemists
so my "Life at the Limits of Physical Laws" presentation (aka M-brains
and relatively immortal SIs) flew past the people there, but Gregory
Benford at least liked it and indicated that more consideration should
be given to these ideas. Chris Chyba from the SETI Inst. (the session
chair) is presumably still stewing over it :-?).

C. Lineweaver who is a reputable astrophysicist, gave a very interesting
argument that there are something like a billion "earths" in our galaxy
and 74% of them are up to a billion years older than our Earth(!). The
argument was based on the accumulation of metals in our galaxy and the
excessive metallicity found in stars with "hot" jupiter planets. Earth's
start forming when the galactic metal abundance rises high enough (several
billion years before the formation of our solar system) and stop forming
when the metal abundance gets too high (resulting in hot jupiters that
fling Earth's out of solar systems).

Chris Chyba gave a very interesting lecture on the probability that
Europa has a watery ocean and might have enough free energy to allow
life to evolve at a low density.

Gregory Benford made some good arguments that the galactic bulge
should be a haven for "older" intelligent life and that if we want
to look for becons, we should look more frequently towards the galactic

I posed thorny questions to J. Weissenbach from Genoscope (Fr.)
and J. Beckman from Genethon (Fr.) regarding whether aging was
a disease and whether we could expect rapid progress in understanding
it now that the genome was done. Weissenbach punted and Beckman
said that "aging was not a disease, it was part of life" (and then
explained the statement in a way that contradicted his earlier
statements about the genetic components of heart disease, obesity, etc.).

The answers clearly indicate that genome researchers are fairly clueless
about aging (though Beckman is to be acknowledged in that he at
least understood that aging is due in part to the declining force of
natural selection).

Shapiro's comments (re: molecular Turing Machines/Finate State Automata)
indicate he is clearly a computer scientist that is thinking only in
limited terms of extending current biotech tools (e.g. ribosomes) to
create within-the-cell computers (previously mentioned in an EIList
post I think). He was reluctant to consider MEMS approaches following
that curve to smaller sizes and seemed to have no knowledge regarding
nanotech timelines (putting the date for his variation of the "Doctor
in a cell" at around 2050).

Drake's presentation was pretty much a rehash of old perspectives
with nothing new other than the inexpensive economics that are
pushing the development and deployment of the hectacre radio astronomy/
SETI array. He did throw a bone to the optical SETI searches. When I
asked him about the problem of long signaling times by long-lived
civilizations (his own ideas), he kind of punted by saying that presumably
they would provide becons with signal times fast enough times for us to detect
them. Of course he didn't comment on why one would want to communicate with
creatures (us) that are effectively lower than "insects" (to them).
My impression was that the SETI folks are leaning very much on the
"leakage" argument (we pick up other civilizations TV signals) without
clear statements that our detection capabilities limit those to something
around 50 ly, and intelligent life would have to be very abundant indeed for
SETI as currently practiced to succeed.

The most striking thing was the almost complete absence of papers looking
at the future rather than papers looking at the past.


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