This summer, SFI’s online education platform, Complexity Explorer, will offer its first course based on “unsettled” research. The new course, “Origins of Life,” will be taught by mathematical biologist and SFI Professor Chris Kempes, and Sarah Maurer, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Central Connecticut State University.
The course, launching June 15 and running through August 2, will walk students through this active area of research by exploring topics such as the evolution of intelligence, information transmission in chemical systems, and questions including whether life is an easy or hard process and what aspects of extant life are arbitrary.
“This course is unlike anything we’ve offered before on Complexity Explorer,” says Linden Schneider, SFI’s Online Education Coordinator. “Chris and Sarah’s course aims to take a wide-reaching and unsettled area of research and present it to a wide audience.” She also notes that one of the long-term aims of the course is to “draw new minds to the field, as Origins of Life is not a traditional discipline of study.”
Current courses on the Complexity Explorer platform cover well-established, foundational areas and methods for complexity science, such as nonlinear dynamics and chaos, agent-based modeling, and fractals and scaling. Origins of Life, however, emerges from an active Research Coordination Network (RCN) funded by a National Science Foundation grant on which Kempes and SFI President David Krakauer are co-principal investigators. Their project aims to push the field forward by bringing new and synthetic thinking to the question of how life emerged from an abiotic world.
The RCN connects scientists from many different disciplinary backgrounds, as well as those from different “camps” in the study of origins of life, such as those who focus on RNA and those who focus on geo-microenvironments as the key to unlocking the secrets of life’s beginnings. This diversity of backgrounds and foci will be represented in the online course, as many of the RCN members have filmed guest lectures.
Like the Santa Fe Institute, the study of life’s origins is highly interdisciplinary. But it’s “interdisciplinary where we don’t yet know how the disciplines will be put together,” Kempes explains. “We generally know what chemistry to teach medical doctors or what physics to teach engineers, but in the origins of life, this is not the case at all.”