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Piet Hut: Origins of Life and Herding Cats

Piet Hut: Origins of Life and Herding Cats

By Suzan Mazur
March 22, 2013


"Science got started in a modern form say with Galileo only 400 years ago. The oldest expressions of art, the oldest expressions of depicting something outside ourselves are in cave paintings of 40,000 years ago. For 99% of human history there was art and religion and for the last 1% there was science. So science often sounds like a teenager, like an adolescent, arrogant and rebellious. That's because it's so young. In another 400 years, if we could speak again, I think science will shape up quite a bit. Get social...

Science started by taking an easy path. It focused on the object pole of experience. It did not want to say much about the subject pole. It did not want to say much about the interaction... In 400 years we've been able to build up an enormous body of knowledge about objects... The unwritten hope in science is that by empirical method taking only one pole, studying that in great detail, you can go back to the back door to the pole door into the rest of the empirical and try and reconstruct everything. But that is at the moment a hypothesis. It may or may not be true. It may not even be clear whether or not one can find a criterion that that is true... I think there is room for philosophy and people from other ways of knowing...

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[T]he current scientific world picture is a picture of only objects. And often when I reflect on that I feel like the person who for the first time went to the moon and looked back at the Earth... We forget that . . . what is given here for each of us. . . everything you see is being painted in your consciousness. And that is the first tool you use to study everything else. It is like a blind man who uses a stick to walk around, and with a stick he can feel the whole room. But if you ask what is he really feeling, it is only the stick and the vibrations in the stick. So yes, we have a very good scientific, objective, empirical method, but everything we are experiencing is given in our experience. That is our stick. And in that sense we are blind, and yet we can understand a lot of what is going on around us." -- Piet Hut, Modern Cosmology Roundtable

Institute for Advanced Study astrophysicist Piet Hut moves lithely, unassumingly, harmoniously through a crowd often in signature t-shirt (unlike Piethut, the asteroid named for him orbiting the sun with a semimajor axis of 2.4 AU, an eccentricity of 0.12 and an inclination of 8 degrees). Hut and I missed one another at the Princeton Origins of Life conference in January but caught up recently at COOL EDGE 2013, the private strategic talks on Origin of Life at CERN, where we agreed to have a longer conversation when Hut returned home to IAS in Princeton.

Hut, a native of The Netherlands, was the youngest professor given tenure when hired at IAS almost three decades ago, later riding out a lawsuit to dismiss him because of his interdisciplinary interests, which IAS said cut into his responsibilities in the astrophysics department. But colleagues and the media rallied to his defense with IAS dropping the case and naming him Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Hut's work now involves explorations in cognitive science and the philosophy of science as well as computational astrophysics.

As a long-time friend of Japanese science (since 1985), he is also now affiliated as an astrophysicist with the Earth-Life Science Institute at Tokyo Insitute of Technology -- Japan's MIT. The next major origin of life symposium takes place there March 27-29. Hut gives one of the opening addresses of the ELSI conference -- "The Big Questions" -- and chairs its last session on exoplanets and astrobiology.

Hut says he has a deep appreciation for Japanese literature and culture, as well, and has spent several months a year in Japan for decades.

While he is known for co-writing a simulation algorithm used in measuring movement of stars and helped create the world's fastest supercomputer, in recent years he's been on the rise as a public intellectual, for example, appearing at Manhattan's Rubin Museum in a one-on-one Brainwave 2010 chat with Indian film director and actor Shekhar Kapur: "Does Chaos Have Meaning?" and at other thoughtful gatherings.

He was also one of five physicists participating in the Sixth Mind and Life Conference in India with the Dalai Lama. But the thread that runs throughout his professional career is his talent for bringing other people together around the world to talk to one another. Discussions he's helped organize include subjects such as -- "Fundamental Sources of Unpredictability" (Santa Fe Institute), "Ambiguity Brought into Focus," "Dialogues with Time and Space," "Some Unsolved Problems in Astrophysics," "Deflecting Asteroids" (NASA), to name a few.

Other affiliations (present and past, partial list) include: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science (Elected Corresponding Member); Foreign Policy Association (International Advisory Council), World Economic Forum (Fellow), Davos; MacArthur Foundation (Nominator); Lindisfarne Association (Member); Husserl Circle (Member); Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness (Member Advisory Board); Center for Consciousness Studies (Member Advisory Committee); Kira Institute (President); B612 Foundation (Secretary and Member); National Mental Sports Center - Amsterdam (Member of Recommendation Committee).

He has also served as a Trustee of the John von Neumann Supercomputer Center (1985-1990); Visiting Scientist in Computer Sciences at MIT (1986, 1987); Visiting Scholar in Applied Mathematics at MIT (1992, 1993); Visiting Scholar, Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics, Kyoto University (2003-2004); Visiting Scientist, University of Utrecht; Visiting Scholar, National Astronomical Observatory, Japan (2004). He was recipient of a Sloan Foundation Fellowship -- Limits of Scientific Knowledge (1994, 1996), and another Sloan Foundation Fellowship in 1985-87; Senior Visiting Fellowship from the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, Tokyo University 1989, 1990; Senior Visiting Fellowship from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Kyoto University in 1993; Visiting Fellowship, University of Strasbourg 2004.

An extensive list of his publications is linked here.

Piet Hut's M.Sc. degree in astrophysics is from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands. His Ph.D. is in particle physics and astrophysics from the University of Amsterdam.

My conversation with Piet Hut follows.

Suzan Mazur: The conference at Tokyo Tech end of March related to Origins of Life -- directly and indirectly -- is the third major scientific gathering on the subject in three months, with meetings at Princeton and CERN in January and February, respectively. Do you see a ramping up of interest in the field?

Piet Hut: It's hard to say. I'm actually new to the Origins of Life field. I've been largely involved with physics and other areas of investigation. It was only in December of last year as the Earth-Life Science Institute in Japan started up that I found myself one of the principal investigators, when we decided to delve into the topic of Origins of Life.

Suzan Mazur: Will the Tokyo conference be streamed over the Internet the way the Princeton conference was?

Piet Hut: I don't think so. They are still setting up the institute's infrastructure, so I'm almost certain that they won't be able to stream the symposium, although I'm almost certain that they will be able to do it for next year's conference. By then they'll also have their own building and staff, and everything should be smoothly up and running.

Suzan Mazur: You attended both the Princeton and the Geneva Origin of Life gatherings and are affiliated with and are participating in the March conference in Tokyo. Do you see new ideas emerging from these gatherings and a synthesis of sorts taking place, or do you think we are still largely on a fishing expedition regarding origin of life?

Piet Hut: Origins of life is a very broad problem. It will take many decades to make significant progress, although I am surprised how much has been accomplished in the last few years. At the same time, there's such a gap between chemistry and biology, and it will take quite a while to close that gap. And not only between chemistry and biology, but also with geology, the relevance of which is now beginning to be understood to a small extent. That is one of the main threads at ELSI, not only to create a dialogue between chemistry and biology but to bring in geology.

Suzan Mazur: You were a trustee of the John von Neumann Supercomputer Center for some time, what are your thoughts about algorithmic origins of life?

Piet Hut: Some part of it lends itself to large-scale simulations for sure. So I think it was a very good idea to come to CERN and see some of the enormous computer power they have there, which could be used especially during the period that the beam is down and they are overhauling the hardware.

There are many types of simulations that can be done on the level of pure chemistry, on the level of simple levels for emerging life, on the level of more complex processes within cells. All kind of network studies.

Suzan Mazur: You've been associated with Japanese science for almost three decades. Why?

Piet Hut: My Ph.D. work was in math, particle physics and astrophysics, theoretical things. Higgs calculation was part of my PhD, which made it really nice to be at CERN for the first time.

Following my Ph.D., I moved to the United States and shortly after I got into heavy computational work, computer simulations in astrophysics. At the time the Japanese were playing a leading role in computing, having very fast supercomputers and there were some very good people doing algorithms. Also, I was culturally interested in Japan. I had always enjoyed reading Japanese literature, playing Go, a Japanese/Chinese board game, and doing all kind of activities relating to Japan. So the combination was a real attraction for me.

In 1984, I visited Japan. I then spent the whole summer there and the entire year of my first sabbatical in 1989. I have been spending a few months every year in Japan ever since.

Suzan Mazur: Do you have a clearer idea since our conversation in Geneva, of how many origin of life researchers there may be out there? Institutions working on the problem? And funding figures?

Piet Hut: In Japan or worldwide?

Suzan Mazur: Worldwide.

Piet Hut: I really don't know -- 500 researchers worldwide, which I mentioned to you, was a very rough number.

Suzan Mazur: Gunter von Kiedrowski in a discussion with me in Geneva about "the unthinkable," a subject CERN distanced itself from, said "it is very likely" that we are not alone. Kei Hirose, host of the Tokyo Origin of Life conference at ELSI also told me that he does not think we are alone. What is your view?

Piet Hut: I certainly think that it is fairly likely that there will be other life in the Universe both on a very simple level and maybe even on the more multicellular complex level like we have on Earth.

Suzan Mazur: You have several pet projects, Kira Cafe, the Harry's Bar After Hours Chats at Princeton and other. Which of these is most interesting at the moment?

Piet Hut: All interesting, but lately I'm focused on my latest project, which is working with Japan's Earth-Life Science Institute on origin of life. I'm especially interested in the more abstract or meta aspects. I was offered a role at ELSI because the institute is interested in astrophysics and I am an astrophysicist. ELSI is also looking at the geological, geophysical and biochemical aspects of the origin and evolution of life.

Going beyond the Earth with its environment, life on other planets may be very different from ours. There's no particular reason, why, if it exists, it should have RNA and DNA like we have. So ELSI is interested in what you could call Universal life. Astrobiology.

What is of great interest to me, and what I will be working on myself, is what are the general principles behind life, not just the biochemistry. What is the complexity inherent in the robustness of life, in the resilience of the way life self-organizes?

Suzan Mazur: Carl Woese was thinking along these lines when he died a few months ago. He was looking at the principles of the origin and evolution of life and told me he did not think that our Last Universal Common Ancestor was anything material, it was a process.

Piet Hut: Yes. I think that is reasonable. It certainly wasn't an individual cell that evolved into life as we know it.

Suzan Mazur: Are you optimistic about where we are headed as a civilization?

Piet Hut: It is so hard to predict. Any moment anything can happen making things a lot worse or a lot better, and the better things have bad side effects, and crises have good side effects. It is completely impossible to predict.

One thing about education that bothers me is that the most interesting insights in physics or in astrophysics -- the kind of academic knowledge I know best -- like quantum mechanics and relativity theory are not being taught in high school. If you have high school physics, you basically have 100 year old physics. Modern science is not being taught in a way that is understandable.

If I were a high school teacher, I would try to find a way to give some sense of what the core of modern physics is without detailed mathematics, without detailed formal explanations. There are many popular textbooks with quantum mechanics and relativity theory that could be used.

Suzan Mazur: There are initiatives for digital education.

Piet Hut: That will definitely help. Yes.

Suzan Mazur: Are you optimistic about the Origin of Life experiment taking off at CERN?

Piet Hut: I'm pretty optimistic because the impression I got, more or less as an outsider, is that they have been working on this for two years now and there was enormous good will from both sides -- CERN and the Origins of Life people. What probably makes the process go a little bit slower is that the culture is so different. It just takes time to speak each other's language.

Of all the organizational models in science, I think CERN is probably the most regimented, army-like -- in a positive sense of the word -- organization where they do experiments. Because they have to be. With 3,000 people working on one experiment, it has to be a hierarchical structure or it will never work.

On the other hand, the origins of life, it's like trying to herd cats, everybody running in their own direction.

So they are really at two ends of the spectrum of organizational discipline. Therefore, the interdisciplinary -- no pun intended -- they face a bigger gap than almost any interdisciplinary collaboration. But I think they will figure it out. They have enough good will.

Suzan Mazur: But where do you see particle physics coming into play with origin of life?

Piet Hut: Not in any direct way. I don't think there is a direct connection with CERN. I think it is the management experience and the computational resources. Those two seem to be the most important. What I hadn't realized was what Gunter von Kiedrowski said about building a piece of machinery, some sort of small chemical reactor, and again using the management of CERN. That was the first time I'd heard about it.

Suzan Mazur: Will the camps come together -- the RNA world approach and the metabolism-first model?

Piet Hut: I think these camps are already intermingling and dancing around each other. It's the nature of research that you polarize a little bit to make your positions clear. Then you fight it out and it's revised in the end. It's an intellectual evolution approach.

Suzan Mazur: Would you like to make a final point?

Piet Hut: Yes, young people -- postdocs, graduate students and others -- should organize themselves. In the field of particle physics, for example, there is little a postdoc or graduate student can do because it's an enormous structure, a matter of navigating like a cog in a machine. But Origins of Life is still a herding-cat science, everything is still nomadic, so a grad student or postdoc has a chance to make an impact. Carl Sagan did this as a graduate student, he organized international conferences. Got people together from the Soviet Union and America. He was an extremely good creative organizer.

Suzan Mazur: This is what you've spent many years of your life doing as well.

Piet Hut: Yes, I've always enjoyed doing it.

Suzan Mazur: What is the importance of Origin of Life research at this point? Why does it make a difference?

Piet Hut: There is a philosophical and a practical answer. The philosophical answer is if you look around in the world and try to understand it, you sooner or later come up with three types of questions. There is the question: Why is there anything as all -- matter and energy and space and time? That is more the area of the Big Bang -- how did things get started?

The second big question is, if you look around and see space and time and matter and energy -- why does some of the matter and energy organize into life? Life is such a bewildering thing compared to physics. So how did life get started is the second really big question.

The third really big question is how did self awareness and intelligence arise, how did individuals appear who could ask the first two questions?

Of those three questions, the one relating to self awareness and intelligence, which requires brain research, is the most complex and least understood. The Big Bang is roughly understood, not in detail, but the basic way of asking the question is clear. Origins of life is the middle question, still a big gap and a big question mark between chemistry and biology, but it's not hopeless.

The timing is right. The reason that I chose particle physics as part of my Ph.D. 20 or 30 years ago was because black holes, the Hawking mechanism, Big Bang, etc. were just getting to an accelerated stage and there were many new discoveries. This is still an interesting topic, but 30 years ago origins of life was still a very, very tough topic and now we are in an accelerated phase. If I were a graduate student today, I'd probably choose origins of life over physics.

Suzan Mazur: Is there an urgency to the origin of life investigation?

Piet Hut: I would say opportunity, not urgency. Scientists are opportunists, they look under the light pole because if you look away from the light pole, you can look pretty hard but you won't find much. Fortunately, the light is shifting now. This is an opportune time for studying origins of life.

In another generation it could be brain studies, neuroscience. The whole question of how first-person subjective knowledge and third-person objective knowledge are two sides of the coin in the brain, as electrical and chemical processes, and at the same time seem to be the seat of our subjective experience. Discovering how those two connect I would say is another generation from now.

So somehow we are in the middle of about a 100 year period in which generation by generation, one by one, the three big questions come to the fore. We are very lucky. That is the philosophical part.

The origin of life is the second of the three big questions and the practical part is that for many applications in biology if the origin of something is known, this helps in understanding related questions. Practical applications will sooner or later result from the investigation of origins of life.



Wednesday, March 27 - Kuramae Hall

Opening addresses

Y. Mishima, President of Tokyo Institute of Technology
M. Aizawa, JST
Mext / JSPS speakers
K. Hirose, Director, Earth-Life Science Institute - "Perspectives of ELSI projects"
P. Hut, Institute for Advanced Study/ELSI - "The Big Questions"

Session 1: Theory of planetary formation (Chair: C. Ormel)

S. Ida, ELSI - Keynote address: "Origin and early evolution of the Earth"
H. Genda, U. Tokyo/ELSI - "Origin of Earth's ocean"
Y. Alibert, Bern U. - Invited Talk
T. Guillot, Obs. Cote d'Azur - "On the chemical composition of protoplanetary disks, stars and planets"

Session 2: Role of solid Earth and surface environment of primordial Earth (Chair: H. Genda)

J. Hemlund, UCB/ELSI - Keynote address: "Birth of the Geodynamo"
P. Driscoll, Yale U. - "Divergence of Earth and Venus: Coupling climate, tectonics, and thermal history"
E. King, UCB - Invited Talk
T. Irifune, Ehime U. / ELSI - Invited Talk
J. Kirschvink, Caltech/ElSI - "A Magnetotactic Origin of the Mitochondria During the Lomagundi/ Jatuli Carbon Isotopic Event"

Thursday, March 28

Session 3: Origin of Life (Chair: D. Kiga)

S. Maruyama, ELSI - Keynote address
M. Hara, Tokyo Tech/ELSI - "Experimental Challenges to Connect the Dots Looking Backwards"
S. Benner, Fame - "RNA, Minerals and the Origin of Life"
K. Kobayashi, Yokohama National U. - "Laboratory simulation of formation and alteration of high molecular weight organics in space"
I. Chen, UCSB - "RNA fitness landscapes"
A. Lazcano, U. National Autonoma - Invited Talk
K. Soai, Tokyo U of Science - "Asymmetric Autocatalysis and the Origin of Homochirality of Biomolecules"
K. Takai, JAMSTEC/ELSI - "Where did the most ancient, ancestral ecosystem originate?"
J. Cleaves, ELSI - Invited Talk
W. Hordijk, - "A Formal Framework for Autocatalytic Sets"

Session 4: Synthetic experiment of life and evolution of genome (Chair: K. Kurokawa)

D. Kiga, ELSI - Keynote address
T. Yomo, Osaka U. - Invited Talk
G. Cody, Carnegie Institution of Washington - Invited Talk
L. Landweber, Princeton - "Principles of ancient genome evolution from Oxytrica"
A. Goldman, Princeton - "Ancient metabolic pathways within the modern protein repertoire"
G. Fournier, MIT - "Evolutionary Genomics and the Origin of Life: Insights and Constraint"
Y. Maeda, Kyoto U. - "Self-organization and phoretic motions for the origin of life"

Friday, March 29

Session 5: Evolution of Earth life (Chair: S. Maruyama)

Y. Ueno and N. Yoshida, ELSI - Keynote: "Origin and early evolution of life, constraints from the Earth's records"
S. Masuda and H. Ohta, Tokyo Tech/ELSI - "Origin of cyanobacteria, and its role for evolution of life"
N. Ohkouchi, JAMSTEC/ ELSI - Invited Talk
K. Kurokawa and Y. Hongo, ELSI, Tokyo Tech - Invited Talk
K. Yasuoka, Keio U. - "Molecular Simulation of formation for dimer of RNA substance and membrane"

Session 6: Exploration of planets and satellite of Solar system (Chair: S. Ida)

Y. Sekine, U. Tokyo - Keynote address: "Geochemistry and astrobiology on icy satellites in the solar system"
M. Fujimoto, JAXA/ ELSI - Invited Talk
H. Kuninaka, JAXA/ ELSI - "Asteroid Sample Returns y Hayabusa and Hayabusa2"
H. Yabuta, Osaka U. - "Organic Compounds in Meteorites, Comets, and Cosmic Dusts: Building Blocks of Planets and Life"
J. Kohm, ELSI - Invited Talk

Session 7: Exoplanets and towards astrobiology (Chair: K. Takai)

L. Kaltenegger, Max Planck/ Harvard - Keynote address: "Observation of biomarker"
D. Lin, UCSC - Invited Talk
R. Hazen, Carnegie Institution of Washington - Invited Talk
T. Sasaki, Tokyo Tech - "A Wide Variety of Habitable Planets"
Y. Fuji, U. Tokyo/ ELSI - "Characterizing surface environment of Earth-like exoplanets via disk-integrated scattered light"
J. Makino, ELSI - "Galactic environment"

General Discussion: Chair -- Piet Hut, Institute for Advanced Study/ ELSI


Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur's reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email:

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