Origins of the Universe and of Life

The second AFI (Austria-France-Italy) symposium “Origins of the Universe and of Life” in Innsbruck, October 17-18, brought together leading physicists and biologists from across Europe and beyond to explore these fundamental issues. The symposium was opened by VR Prof. Tilmann Märk in the beautiful surroundings of the Claudiasaal (in the palace of Claudia of Medici) and generated much cross-disciplinary discussion between biologists and physicists.

New developments in cosmology and biology offer exciting opportunities to explore the fundamental structure of the Universe, its physical origin and the origins of life. Vacuum energy, neutrinos and gravitational waves are fundamental ingredients of the physical Universe. The science of genomics and DNA explores the deep structure of life with its origins in cold and extreme environments. New advances in biology and computational science are driving exciting cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Evidence of the early Universe from the WMAP experiment was presented by Joanna Dunkley from Oxford who spoke about dark energy, inflation and the cosmic microwave background radiation as a window on the Universe at 300 000 years old. The fundamental structure of life was addressed by Claude Thermes from the CNRS Centre de Genetique Moleculaire, Gif-sur-Yvette, who spoke about the Genome as a system of overlaying codes. Fundamental physics issues were discussed by Cecilia Jarlskog from Lund (former Chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics) who talked about neutrinos (very light mass weakly interacting elementary particles), Astrid Lambrecht from Paris who talked about the Casimir effect and vacuum energy in quantum systems, and Michele Maggiore (Geneva) who talked about gravitational wave ripples in space and experiments to measure them. Corrado Priami from the Microsoft Research -University of Trento Centre for Computational and Systems Biology spoke about new approaches to model biological systems using large computers. The origins of life in extreme and cold environments was discussed in 3 lectures by Jean-Robert Petit (Grenoble) who talked about looking for life and evidence for climate change from Lake Vostok, 4km under the ice in Antarctica, Diethard Böhme (York University in Canada) who spoke about possible evidence for chemical origins of life in interstellar clouds and Alexandre Anesio (Bristol) who talked about microbial processes in glaciers as a model for life on other planets. Eva-Maria Koch from the Alpine Research Centre Obergurgl gave an evening lecture on Obergurgl, the Ötzi and connections to the origin of people.

The meeting was organized by Steven Bass (Theoretical Physics) and Birgit Sattler (Ecology) in collaboration with the Frankreich-Schwerpunkt and Italien-Zentrum of the Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck whose mandates are to develop and promote scientific and cultural relations between the University of Innsbruck and French and Italian experts and institutes. For more information see the programme (pdf).