(Illustration: NASA)

What can a science-fiction story about an alien virus tell us about life itself, on Earth and beyond? A new video mini-series, “Andromeda Strain and the Meaning of Life,” will explore major questions around astrobiology and life’s origins through imaginative conversations between six leading researchers in the field.

Produced by the InterPlanetary Project, the series tackles one of SFI’s most ambitious and defining research themes – the emergence of life and the possibility that it exists elsewhere in the universe. The late biophysicist Harold Morowitz (SFI, George Mason University) convened the Institute’s inaugural workshop on the origins of life in 1987 and grew it into a multi-institution, National Science Foundation-funded investigation that produced two leading, but incomplete, scientific explanations. Prior to his rigorous work at the Institute, Morowitz had co-authored a more speculative letter with Carl Sagan in 1967 that imagined how life forms could survive in the cloud decks of Venus. This idea received a new wave of attention in 2020 following the independent discovery of Phosphine gas (often associated with life) in the Venusian atmosphere.

SFI researchers are now pushing new frontiers in origins-of-life research through a NASA and NSF-funded research coordination network (RCN) that brings new fields and methods to the study of astrobiology and life’s origins.

Traditionally, these researchers have shared new insights with the public at SFI’s annual InterPlanetary Festival, during a panel discussion devoted to Astrobiology and Life Detection. But because the continued threat of COVID-19 makes hosting a festival near-impossible, the InterPlanetary Project will in 2020 explore Astrobiology and Life Detection through the online mini-series.

SFI President David Krakauer kicks this series off on October 15, using science-fiction film “The Andromeda Strain” (based on Michael Crichton’s novel) to frame some of the challenging questions at the center of origins-of-life research.

“Why are we here, at a scientific research institute, discussing science fiction? And why have we built monoliths on our grounds? It’s because we believe that imagination should be unchained, and that we believe, often, that ideas of scientific value are derived outside of the rigorous scientific domain. And the ideas that Andromeda Strain touches on, and Solaris, and 2001, constitute, in some sense, the science of the future…that if it wasn’t for crystalline life, if it wasn’t for oceanic intelligence, if it wasn’t for great monoliths that suggest the existence of vast civilizations beyond our knowledge, we perhaps would be less inspired to pursue very ambitious and somewhat controversial scientific projects. We might all be doing the same things, and I think we are in debt to the creative minds who are willing to forfeit the rigors of the scientific method, and to imagine the science of the future. That’s partly why we’re here, it’s partly why InterPlanetary is so important, because it gives equal weight to the imagination. And the imagination and method together have superpowers.”

Each week, a new expert is invited to continue the previous episode’s discussion, and enliven it with their own thoughts on what “life” means — whether we can recognize it when we see it; whether we can create it in new form or re-create a form we know; and whether we’ll ever truly understand how it originated, or where and how it’s originating. 


Programming Schedule



Oct. 15, 2020

David Krakauer, SFI President, evolutionary theorist, and co-PI of the Research Coordination Network for Exploration of Life's Origins

Oct. 22, 2020

David Krakauer and Christopher Kempes, SFI Professor, mathematical biologist, and co-PI of the Research Coordination Network for Exploration of Life's Origins

October 29, 2020

Christopher Kempes and Kate Adamala (University of Minnesota), synthetic biologist and geneticist

Nov. 5, 2020

Kata Adamala and Sara Imari Walker, SFI External Professor (ASU), theoretical physicist and astrobiologist

Nov. 12, 2020

Sara Imari Walker and Lee Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry, University of Glasgow. Inorganic biologist and chemist

Nov. 19, 2020

Lee Cronin and Pete Worden, Breakthrough Initiatives Executive Director and former NASA Ames director

Dec. 3, 2020

Pete Worden and Jeremy England, biophysicist and author of Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things (Basic Books, 2020)

Dec. 11, 2020

Jeremy England and David Krakauer, SFI President, evolutionary theorist, and co-PI of the Research Coordination Network for Exploration of Life's Origins


Watch the mini-series, "Andromeda Strain and the Meaning of Life"