"Life" is a Margarita, and some charming Ants

One of the more interesting discussions at Lunch with IF on Friday followed the question, "What is life?"

Surprisingly, the answers aren't that straightforward, especially when the obvious marker of sentient, self-reflective behavior is excluded. Science is still divided over whether a virus, for example, is "alive." We also know of organisms on Earth that live in the crushing heated pressures near deep sea vents, metabolizing what elements are on hand, and microbes that have been trapped for millions of years in glacial ice.

And now that water ice has been confirmed near the surface of Mars, astronomer Pamela Gay put the possibility in context with a pithy quote that I asked her to repeat following Lunch with IF:

If the environment for life has been dramatically expanded, one might suggest that life is what responds in a systematic way to its surroundings.

University of Louisville biology professor Lee Dugatkin, who has studied animal behavioral extensively, discussed how a simple rulebook can lead to complex, even cooperative, behaviors, and pointed out the work being done with synthetic "life" by the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. A little more effort turned up this this video that makes his point.


Thanks to University of Louisville professor and futurist Nat Irvin, who served on our panel as well. There were many other highlights that I and Elle Waters twittered during the discussion and follow up question and answer session. I'm sure we'll be doing more Lunches with IF - and give away more All-Access Passes too.

I hope you'll be there.