Activities in 2014-2015

From the Report for Academic Year 2014-2015
of the Institute for Advanced Study

Much of the work of Piet Hut, Professor and head of the Institute’s Program in Interdisciplinary Studies, concerns the relationship between various “origins” questions such as: What is the relationship between a search for the origins of life, and the origins of more complex structures, such as multicellular plants, animals, and brains? Are they examples of something that can be described, at least to some abstract or “meta” extent, in more overarching ways, or should we be satisfied with attempts to answer each origins question separately?

In pursuit of these questions, Hut interacted with Visitors in his Program covering a range of areas—from astrophysics, geophysics, physics of complex systems, mathematics, statistics, chemistry, genomics, bioinformatics, computer science, and artificial life to sociology, political science, literature, art history, psychology, and philosophy.

Following a series of earlier workshops at IAS, in November 2014, Hut organized the “Modeling Origins of Life (MOL)” workshop in preparation for a larger conference in November 2015 at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., on “Re-Concep- tualizing the Origin of Life,” as a way to let the MOL grassroots movement that he started gain more visibility.

At the Institute, Hut continued to lead the After Hours Conversations series, together with colleagues Nicola Di Cosmo from the School of Historical Studies, Didier Fassin from the School of Social Science, and Helmut Hofer from the School of Mathematics. These conversations were held in Harry’s Bar, two times a week for a period of two months during each semester, and they were widely seen as an effective way to encourage inter-School communication.

Hut continued his association with ELSI, the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute for Technology, as a foreign Principle Investigator and Councilor. Launched at the end of 2012, ELSI is focused on the study of the origins and evolution of life on Earth, as well as possibly on other planets, within the context of geology and astrophysics.

In July 2015, Hut and collaborators at ELSI won a substantial grant, for which he was the Principle Investigator, from the John Templeton Foundation for the establishment of EON, the ELSI Origins Network. This network will strengthen the connections between broadly interdisciplinary collaborations in the field of origins of life in particular, and of origins of life-like processes in general, in natural as well as social sciences.

Hut also organized a three-week summer school in Kobe, Japan, titled “Towards an Integrative Approach to the Study of Awareness,” in August 2015. The school’s eighteen part-time teachers and twenty full-time students were drawn from a large range of disciplines, including neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, artificial life, robotics, logic, high-performance computing, psychology, and philoso- phy, in particular phenomenology.

Hut continued his involvement with the B612 Foundation, dedicated to trying to protect the Earth from asteroid impacts. As a cofounder, he served for more than ten years as a Member of the Board, while he currently has the position of Strategic Advisor.