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Early life, exoplanets, CRISPR — and a papal audience

Several scientists and scholars connected to the John Templeton Foundation will present on topics including cosmology and the origins of life at the Vatican next week, sharing insights from their fields in a conference intended to bring visibility to groundbreaking work in the sciences.

On Nov. 12-14, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will convene a group of nearly 50 scientists and thinkers at the Vatican’s Casa Pio IV for the Academy’s 2018 plenary session. Titled “Transformative Roles of Science in Society: From Emerging Basic Science toward Solutions for People’s Wellbeing,” the conference will feature presenters and working groups that identify emerging scientific insights and connect them with visions for engaging the public and addressing humanity’s problems. They will also have an audience with Pope Francis, who in 2016 urged scientists to use their disciplines’ traditions of apolitical and non-ideological inquiry to make a cultural model for confronting ecological crises and climate change. At the end of the conference, the Academy will award its biennial Pius XI medal for a promising scientist under the age of 45.

The presenters will include several scientists with connections to the John Templeton Foundation — including two recipients of the Templeton Prize and other scholars who have received Foundation grants in support of their work.

Steven Benner, who received a $5.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to unravel paradoxes concerning the chemical conditions necessary for the emergence of life, will present on ways that science can tackle origin-of-life questions not easily addressed by traditional methods. Templeton-funded research overseen by Benner has already made progress on several long-standing questions about how life could have begun in the particular atmospheric and geologic conditions of early earth.

Several other scholars previously involved in Templeton-supported work will also be presenting at the conference. MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager will talk about the implications of the accelerating discovery of planets outside our solar system, while Chilean biochemist Rafael Vicuña will analyze the potential societal impacts of the CRISPR-Cas gene editing technique. Antje Jackelen, the Lutheran archbishop of Uppsala, Sweden, and Guy Consolmagno, SJ, the director of the Vatican Observatory, will also participate in sessions.

Martin Rees, a British astrophysicist and former president of the Royal Society who won the Templeton Prize in 2011 for his work in cosmology, will chair two conference sessions on physics and astronomy and will offer closing commemorations for two departed members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences — astronomer Vera Rubin and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (who received the Pius XI medal in 1975).

Another Templeton Prize-winner, cosmologist John Barrow, who received the award in 2006, will participate in one of Rees’s panels, offering “frontier insights” from current work in cosmology.

“For decades the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has recognized the importance of using basic research to address the kind of big questions that Sir John Templeton thought were crucial to human development and flourishing,” says Chris Levenick, the John Templeton Foundation’s director of public engagement. “We’re thrilled to see people that the Foundation has supported making real contributions at events like the coming plenary session at the Vatican. For basic science to live up to its transformative potential, it’s crucial to have gatherings like this.”