Season: Physics of Life

Are there universal laws of life and can we find them? Is there a physics of society, of ecology, of evolution? Join us for thought-provoking insights on the physics of life and its profound implications on our understanding of the universe. In this first season of the Santa Fe Institute’s Complexity podcast’s relaunch, we talk to researchers who have been exploring these questions and more through the lens of complexity science. The first of the six episodes was launched on January 31, 2024.

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Plant Based Collective Cognition (artwork by Ricard Solé)

Ep 6: Multiple worlds, containing multitudes

In the final episode of this season, we hear from a NASA researcher whose expertise spans from studying samples in deep, untouched regions of our planet all the way to organic chemistry happening in space. We consider the possibility of other, past origins of life on Earth and look at the rich potential to learn from sample return missions, including the recent OSIRIS-REx mission that retrieved samples of the asteroid Bennu. Abha also sits down with Chris to hear his perspective on the podcast as a researcher who's collaborated with this season's guests on diverse research.

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Disordered Brains (artwork by Ricard Solé)

Ep 5: How human history shapes scientific inquiry

In this episode, we examine how the course of human history has shaped our scientific knowledge, why the physics community prioritizes some questions over others, and why progress in complex systems research is especially difficult. Academia continues to operate within set boundaries and students are taught certain concepts as fundamental and to skirt others completely. However, the history of science demonstrates that such concepts aren’t always set in stone. It’s possible that blowing open the “shackles of reality,” such as redefining the concept of life itself, and reprioritizing the problems that scientists want to tackle, might help scientists make more progress in this very difficult world of complexity research.

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Brainy Ants (artwork by Ricard Solé)

Ep 4: The physics of collectives

Are there conditions that create a pathway to innovation and groundbreaking inventions? How do groups solve problems? In today’s episode, we look at the science of collectives to learn about the patterns that emerge as human societies grow, the importance of a collective structure to foster ideas and create impact, and – from collectives like ants and immune systems – the importance of veering off the beaten path to become better at exploring and discovering.

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Neural Plants (artwork by Ricard Solé)

Ep 3: Why is life so diverse?

In the first two episodes of this season, we’ve examined how fundamental rules like scaling laws constrain evolution for all forms of life. But if everything is bound to these core rules, then why do we see exceptions? In this episode, Abha and Chris get into the incredible diversity of plants and animals on this planet, where that diversity comes from, and if it’s possible to make forecasts about the biosphere, just like we do for the weather. And, what happens when biodiversity is threatened?

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Octopus Technology (artwork by Ricard Solé)

Ep 2: How do we identify life?

In this episode, Chris and Abha explore how life originated here on earth and how we might identify it in other parts of the universe. They ask two researchers about the signature characteristics of life and what common dynamics we might see among organisms outside our planet. They’ll also delve into assembly theory, a recent concept that looks at the construction of objects as a way to universally quantify life, which has ignited debate within the scientific community.

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Brains Like Computers? (artwork by Ricard Solé)

Ep 1: What can physics tell us about ourselves?

Humans can live up to age 100, and not 1000 – why? Are there limits in how much our brains can think and compute? The laws of physics can help explain a lot, both about our own human bodies and how we are connected to life all around us.

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  • Complexity, Listen to the first 106 episodes of the Complexity Podcast for conversations with our worldwide network of scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, artists, and other leading thinkers.
  • Alien Crash Site, an initiative of the InterPlanetary Project, celebrates the mutual influence of science and science-fiction. Every guest — whether astrobiologist or Olympic athlete — imagines one alien technology that could change the course of human advancement.