Didier Queloz | Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy, University of Cambridge, UK


After this series of great talks, I hope we all understand that the Universe is an amazing lab for physicist to test the limits of our knowledge on fundamental concepts such as time, space and matter, as well as to discover new physical elements like “dark energy” for example.

In this short communication, I would like to share with you that, recently, we have just started a new research avenue that is looking like some sort of 21st century extension of the Copernicus revolution: The origin and prevalence of life in the Universe!

What are the conditions for life to start and to evolve? What exactly happened on Earth, and is it happening elsewhere? Why does the Universe produce life? What does it mean to be alive? Is life massively present in the Universe or is it just a unique episode of sheer luck doomed to disappear when our Sun, exhausting its Hydrogen fuel, expands and engulf us? We all have to admit that these are amongst the greatest existential questions, so challenging that we don’t have much of an answer yet.

We are living – I believe – in an extraordinary moment in our history where a couple of spectacular scientific breakthroughs in different directions are bringing us an optimistic and fresh perspective that modern science is within reach to deliver answers about “why do we have life on Earth and is that unique?”

Following my colleague Karin Öberg’s talk it is pretty clear that Astrophysics is detecting and characterising an increasing number of exoplanets, bringing more and more information on their physics and chemistry and the surface conditions of some of them.

Planetary science is exploring in detail solar system objects, bringing pristine samples back to Earth. With the exception of some interplanetary dust from comets, the last time in human history we did this was 50 years ago, from the Moon.

Then, in the dawn of our century, organic biochemistry has made fascinating progress on the reverse engineering of the origin of life on Earth, and you may have a better glimpse of it in the following days.

But let’s face it bluntly: individual progress in each of these disciplines does not guarantee we shall solve the core problem. A growing number of scientists, working at the forefront of this field from different perspectives, are becoming increasingly aware of the intrinsic difficulties to develop a deeper overall understanding without broadening our knowledge baseline with a step-change in our collaboration model.

Various groups of scholars and institutions are responding to this challenge and are developing new structural efforts to deal with its interdisciplinary challenges and to create functional bridges with other fields. They all share a simple idea that different disciplines, looking from different perspectives, can creatively operate together, filling critical knowledge sitting in boundaries to enable a better exploitation of opportunities. Similar lines of thought are being developed to address complex multidisciplinary challenges such as global warming and AI revolution.

I humbly recognise that the question of the nature and significance of life transcends the traditional boundaries of natural sciences. For this purpose, at Cambridge for example, in collaboration with the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, we included Arts and Humanities studies in the core activity of the recently established Leverhulm Centre for life in the Universe. Our goal will be to encourage philosophy, literature and theology to actively engage and challenge concepts as well as to bring in a philosophical perspective.

I am not hiding that it is a broad and extremely ambitious agenda but significant prestigious research and teaching institutions in the world have responded to the challenge and are establishing Centres with similar purposes.

We are all convinced that collectively we are establishing not only a new knowledge but also a legacy by cultivating a new generation of researchers increasingly familiar with operating in a more flexible and interdisciplinary environment, with the strategical vision to establish a long-lasting pathway that will eventually lift the veil on one of the greatest mysteries of the Universe.

Thank you for your attention.