Japan is a resonant place to be tackling these existential conundrums: these links between us and the planet’s deep history, and the different yet parallel pathways that fate and physics could take the world along. Because more than anything else, to a westerner’s eye this is a country where a possible future continually meets an alternate past.
As our three-day gathering progresses, some of Japan’s strange magic seems to be having an effect. The science of origins of life divides into several sub-fields. Some are almost exclusively concerned with the detailed machinery of organic (carbon-based) molecules, the blocks of the Miller-Urey experiment, and more complex molecular pieces. How do these molecules behave in different environments, and how they can self-assemble into more and more functional structures?
Other researchers busy themselves by discussing the intriguing field of artificial life, the quest for an in silico rendering of living systems, both matching real biology and taking on entirely new forms. There is also radical work being undertaken on inorganic life, RNA-worlds, synthetic organisms in wet labs, and more.
There’s a growing realization in the room that many of the biggest problems in these diverse areas are all the same, just under different names. For example, coming up with that measure of system “aliveness” is a challenge common to areas as disparate as chemistry, algorithm design, and solar-system exploration. Serious consideration is given to augmenting human-led investigations with “thinking algorithms” and robots to help analyze insanely complex data and systems.
The most tangible progress comes from two deceptively simple ideas: We need a better common language, and we need to spend more time talking to each other.
Did it really take tens-of-thousands of air miles, and rearranged schedules to gather and discover that we should all hold hands better?
We decide that there are different types of origins. These include terrestrial, plausible, and artificial—or what actually happened on Earth, what could have happened, and what never happened but can now. In the past, researchers thinking about these questions have often, at best, ignored each other, or at worst been consciously dismissive of each other. It’s pretty clear that the time has come to move on. Cracking the problems of the origins of life—in all its guises—is probably not going to be a singular accomplishment, no lone genius is going to tie all the threads together. It’s just too damn complicated.
Scientists have a lot of pride, but more than perhaps any other field, the origins of life is pushing us towards a fundamentally new type of research, where orthogonal approaches and the kindness of strangers are essential.
The rain stops and the meeting ends. A mob of us decompress over beer and sake in a local izakaya—a pub-come-restaurant. We’re all exhausted and at first a little quiet. But slowly, a few seats from where I’m sitting, a conversation springs up between an unlikely gang of roboticists, theorists, and chemists. Grand plans start to crystallize across the wooden table, emerging from pieces of broken English and Japanese.
Whatever the origins of life were on Earth, it’s hard not to marvel at the curious organisms that came along 4 billion years later with the capacity to worry about such questions. And here, on Japan’s fragile crustal island, for tonight, at least, the mood is optimistic that we might yet crack the puzzle.