What is life? That was the first question at my last festival event of the weekend--which was sold out, like every other event I attended. However you measure it, the festival looked like a hit: packed halls, riveting speakers, belly laughs, probing questions, subtle answers, and diverse crowds of audience members blocking the sidewalks afterward as they continued the debates.
Anyway, what is life? If you believe Steven Benner, a synthetic biologist, it’s a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution. Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and astrobiologist, thinks it’s all about information reproduction and processing: “No system other then life or a product of life processes complex information,” he says. And astrobiologist Margaret Turnbull is impatient with the very question. “As soon as we make a definition, it’s only a matter of time before it’s proved limited. I would much rather get out there and look for it and see what it’s like,” she says.