Considering the Future

Science and Society conference to honor Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail

Can we find life on other planets? Can we bridge the economic divide between rich and poor? Can we engineer the human body to live longer than our genes currently allow, and should we even attempt such a thing?

On February 26, some of the nation's leading scientists and researchers—including five Nobel laureates, two of whom are from Caltech—will gather at Caltech to discuss some of the most perplexing questions facing humanity. During a one-day conference titled "Science and Society," they will address an eclectic mix of topics ranging from current efforts to reduce global poverty to the mechanical workings of clocks so accurate that they lose less than a second every 300 million years.

The conference has been organized in honor of Ahmed Zewail, Caltech's Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, who was the sole recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of the field of femtochemistry. Zewail, who also serves as director of Caltech's Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology, has lived the concept that science should drive the betterment of society, not only in his academic life, but in his advocacy as a U.S. science envoy to the Middle East and scientific advisor to the United Nations, and as a leader within his native Egypt, as exemplified by the role he played both during and after the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

"Science plays a vital role in helping people live better lives and helping humanity understand its place in the universe, and it's a rare treat for so many distinguished people to gather in one place to discuss these fascinating topics," says Zewail. "The theme that will shine through in this conference is that a passion for science, combined with a sense of optimism, can make the almost-impossible possible."

The conference, which will be held in Beckman Auditorium, will include speakers from Caltech, Stanford, the University of Maryland, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Caltech's president, Thomas F. Rosenbaum, and provost, Edward Stolper, as well as Jacqueline Barton, chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and Fiona Harrison, the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, will open the conference; Rosenbaum will also provide concluding remarks at the end of the day.

The other speakers will include Caltech Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who will talk about "The Future of Medicine" and the CRISPR technology that is now teaching scientists how to "edit" a person's genes, an undertaking that raises a host of ethical questions. "Since medicine has brought us from a life expectancy of 45 years to one of 77 in the last century, it is reasonable to expect medicine will be able to extend it to 85 or even 100," says Baltimore, the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology. "But to go much beyond that, we would need to think about altering our genes. Should we think about that?"

William Phillips, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and a Nobel laureate, will give a talk titled "Time, Einstein, and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe." His discussion will focus on how scientists are using supercold atoms to "allow tests of some of Einstein's strangest predictions" and to create supremely accurate atomic clocks, which, he says, "are essential to industry, commerce, and science." Phillips is also a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

JPL director Charles Elachi will predict—in his talk about "The Future of Space Exploration"—that, during the next decade, we will establish permanent scientific stations on Mars and engage in a search for present or past ocean life on the moons of Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. Elachi believes that, in the near future, "we will also be imaging and characterizing planets around neighboring stars to see if we are alone."

Roger Kornberg, Nobel laureate and the Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor in Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine, will discuss "The End of Disease." His talk will look at the challenges faced by the scientific community from both "biomedical and political myopia," while also considering the capacity and power of physics, chemistry, and biology to bring modern medicine forward.

A. Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate from the Stanford Graduate School of Business who will speak on "Inequality and World Economics," believes the integration of the world economy has helped reduce global income inequality on a "massive scale." Nonetheless, he says, the economic divide between rich and poor is getting larger within many countries, including virtually all developed nations. In his lecture, Spence says, he will try "to unpack the contributing factors to this inequality, its results, and how to respond effectively to this trend."

And Caltech's H. Jeff Kimble, the William L. Valentine Professor and professor of physics, will be focusing on "startling advances in quantum physics"—specifically, how the complex correlations that arise among many strongly interacting quantum objects has and can continue to shape computation, communication, and the health of physics and society more generally. 

Visit the Science and Society Conference website for more information about the event and to register and receive updates.

Written by Alex Roth