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Harvard professor speaks to UNH about the origin of life

By Adam Cook


Students, professors and local residents filled the auditorium in Spaulding Hall Tuesday night, as highly credited scientist George Whitesides began his speech about the origin of life, as part of the Harold A. Iddles Lecture Series.

“What does it mean to be alive?” Whitesides asked the audience of about 50.

Whitesides received his A.B. degree from Harvard University in 1960 and his PhD from the California Institute of Technology in 1964 where he worked on organic chemistry. He then went on to become a chemistry professor at Harvard University, which is his current occupation.

After a few technical difficulties, the chair of the chemistry department, Glen Miller, introduced Whitesides.

Whitesides’ lecture began by discussing the chemistry that went into shaping life.

“Maybe me standing here is some weird form of chemical processes,” Whitesides said.

Using complex chemical equations, Whitesides began to develop a hypothesis about how life is formed and the different types of conditions necessary for that to happen.

“This is probably the hardest problem we’ve ever worked on,” Whitesides said.

While going through more complex chemical equations and touching upon how the cell works, Whitesides put a slide up that read “you can’t ask what life is; only what life does.”

“This is a great question for those of you who are students– after drinking too much,” joked Whitesides.

Whitesides’ lecture started to wind down with a discussion about the hypothetical idea and possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

“It’s not so obvious that there is different types of life, but if so, how many habitable planets are out there?” Whiteside questioned. “We could be as common as grass; there could be billions of similar planets out there.”

Whitesides ended his lecture with a question and answer session with the audience.

Christian Ryan, a senior at UNH, attended the lecture hoping to learn a new viewpoint on the origin of life.

“Professor Whitesides has a very well thought out and educated theory about the origin of life on Earth that is very apparent from his research,” Ryan said. “I thought his presentation was incredibly dense in concepts based in chemistry, but it was a means for providing basis for the latter half of the presentation which called upon questioning philosophical ideas.”

The Harold A. Iddles Lecture Series is an annual event that has been occurring since 1961. When Professor Iddles retired in 1961, the chemistry department and alumnus decided to fund the lecture series in his honor. Each lecturer, always a chemist, puts on two presentations; the first one is a more advanced lecture, while the second one is more broad and advertised to the public.

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