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Ideas Challenge Winners

Life

Congratulations to our Ideas Challenge winners in the Life track! These applicants explore novel approaches or ideas that advance our conception of what life is and how it may have originated. Learn more about them and their projects below.

Zachary Adam
University of Arizona
‘Subsumed complexity’ is a concept that was developed to probe the conditions in which one may expect life-like attributes (self-organization, adaptability, homeostasis) to be exhibited by non-living chemical systems. Its implications are that powerful forms of energy such as X-rays or gamma rays are more likely to yield complex outcomes than pervasive forms of energy such as UV or visible light. These implications lead to a surprising outcome: we may predict that living systems represent simplified subsets of chemical relationships that were distilled from even more complex predecessor relationships driven by these powerful energy sources. We might therefore more productively seek conditions of maximal chemical complexity when assessing life’s distribution and potential organizational variability in our universe.  
Dee Denver
Oregon State University
A Buddhist analytical lens will be applied to Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution to identify how reliance on ‘self’ concepts, byproducts of broader Western thought and culture, might compromise or limit these central biological theories.  Sutras and other foundational texts from diverse Buddhist traditions will serve as primary sources for describing the ‘self’ attributes in biology that Buddhism claims are false and misleading.  The work will conclude with a reconsideration of life as an impermanent and interdependent, rather than ‘self-sufficient’, system capable of Darwinian evolution, and reflect on the consequences of reframing life in this way. 
Maaneli Derakhshani 
Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Department of Mathematics
The philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued for modifying the conception of the natural order so that Natural Teleology plays a fundamental role in the explanation of how (biological) life and minds emerge from law-governed physico-chemical processes in the universe. Natural Teleology is the idea that the laws of nature governing the temporal development of the universe have an inherent propensity to produce physico-chemical states of increasing organizational complexity, on the way to producing (biological) life and minds. I propose to develop physical theories of the Natural Teleological type, by suitably modifying two ontological versions of non-relativistic quantum mechanics that are fundamentally stochastic. The modification is to weight the possible physical states of the universe so that physical states with greater organizational complexity have a greater probability of being realized in the temporal development of the universe than would be the case from the non-teleological stochastic physical laws alone.
Robert Hazen
Carnegie Institution for Science
Cosmic chemical evolution posits the universe began with the Big Bang and subsequently experienced an ordered sequence of physicochemical stages, each of which added chemical and structural complexity to the cosmos. It is unclear, however, whether such temporally asymmetric evolution is fully explained by existing natural laws, or if additional laws of thermodynamics are required for life and other open, self-constructing physicochemical systems. I suggest that the mineral kingdom provides an idealthough inadequately studied, system to elucidate principles of chemical evolution because it is sufficiently diverse to epitomize an emergent complex systemyet sufficiently tractable to fully explore. Mineral “historical natural kinds rigorously and quantitatively display the temporally asymmetrical pattern of increasing complexification exhibited by the universe, and therefore provide an ideal test case to explore rigorously underlying principles of emergent complexity 
Matthew Pasek 
University of South Florida
Life is a transitional phenomenon between a high energy, disordered state and a lower energy, structured state.  As such, life may parallel quasicrystals, which are an ordered but non-repeating state of matter.   To this end, the investigation of these parallels—such as understanding the energetics of quasicrystal formation and the environment in which they form—may provide insight into the origin and development of living systems.