116 Returning to the Root of Life

Imagine my excitement at being invited to visit and collaborate with researchers at ELSI. In particular, by my host, Nicholas Guttenberg, whom I have many fond recollections of debating over different aspects of life¹s origin and his designs to create the next step in artificial life that will tear us all limb from limb in the process of taking over the world. It was a much anticipated event for the summer and ended up being much more than I expected. It is with much heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the staff at ELSI that I recount my experiences for a wider audience.

So Nicholas Guttenberg (or ŒNich', pronounced as niche, as I am used to referring to him) was kind enough to set aside some time to bring me back to the origin of life, a field that is closer to my original line of research, and one whose deep thoughts I have forsaken in recent years for the usual sensibilities of curing cancer through microbial ecology. This has significance in a number of way for me. It is the root and source of many of my thoughts and insights into ecology and evolution. It has, over the years, provided me with much needed mental depth and acuity that I like to pretend I carry forward to this day. It also has provided me with a lot of the direct insights that I utilize in analyzing systems in microbial ecology when I can. And, as a perhaps middling pet peeve, it is an area that shows immense utility through the theories it generates about life as applied to other areas. I like to consider myself some kind of limited proof of this.

So all in all, the venture to ELSI was a stunning proposition outweighed only by maybe the actual trip itself. I was more prepared than I have been for most trips because I knew the language barrier would get me in trouble if I went too far off the beaten path and because of sheer excitement. I was interested to find out what was going on and on a personal level to catch up with Nich. As for the trip itself, it's hard for me to really know where to begin. So maybe I'll start at the beginning, because I thought that was funny, and fill and/or skip things in along the way.

Arriving in Narita was easy enough, as was customs and immigration. Figuring out the trains was a bit harder, even for someone who considers himself very adept with mass transit. Despite some carefully given instructions, I'm pretty sure I ended up on the wrong train on the way to Oimachi, which gave me the opportunity to find out just how nice Japanese people really are. The poor lady at the information desk not only spent about 20 minutes trying to help me, but she also ran to my platform to hand me a piece of paper I forgot at her desk. Amazingly, I found that Japan seems to have a culture built specifically to combat my absentmindeness. I'm not sure I can count the number of times clerks ran after me with change, receipts, and other errata that I had put down and forgotten to pick up again on my way out the door of the many stores and restaurants I visited. That's probably not why Japan exists, but I'd like to think it was built with me in mind. Though in reality, I mostly owe a lot of apologies to the many people who were running to catch up to me.

Despite arriving during a site visit and a Roadmap workshop to the Origin of Life, Nich carved out time whenever possible for us to sit down and have scientific discussions. As usual, these ranged from philosophy of science to scenarios of early life to testing the boundaries of evolutionary algorithms. And also as usual, in terms of running actual tests, I was fairly useless. I've never really been able to keep up with Nich when it comes to coding speed and accuracy. It's actually somewhat annoying, but it has always been better to just leave it to him to do on the fly, in front of you, while you are discussing ideas verbally. In particular, we spent the time examining some of our fringe ideas that have now had quite some time to percolate. This included meta-evolutionary schemes such as hot spots (learning where to evolve) as well as some very interesting ideas on where the many patterns we see in evolution arise from. This latter bit included deep dives into a generic basis for epistasis and the underlying processes that give rise to tempo and mode in evolution, and the branching pattern of the 3 Domains of life. Of course, this filtered into some fond recollections of Carl Woese, who was a huge mentor to our group when we were both at Illinois.

Of the cultural things I got to see, I think Ueno Park, Akihabara, and mostly the Awa Dance festival were the biggest highlights, aside from food. Speaking of food, I tend to rate entire countries based on food when I travel, and I have to say Tokyo was stunning in that aspect as well. But if I get started in on that, it would go on for a while. And what would be the fun of that?

1022blog.jpgAwa Odori festival