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Humanity’s quest to discover the origins of life in the universe

Wed, 08/03/2023 - 17:10

For thousands of years, humanity and science have contemplated the origins of life in the Universe. While today’s scientists are well-equipped with innovative technologies, humanity has a long way to go before we fully understand the fundamental aspects of what life is and how it forms.

“We are living in an extraordinary moment in history,” said Professor Didier Queloz, who directs the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe at Cambridge and ETH Zurich’s Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life. While still a doctoral student, Queloz was the first to discover an exoplanet – a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. The discovery led to him being awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In the three decades since Queloz’s discovery, scientists have discovered more than 5,000 exoplanets. Trillions more are predicted to exist within our Milky Way galaxy alone. Each exoplanet discovery raises more questions about how and why life emerged on Earth and whether it exists elsewhere in the universe.

Technological advancements, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and interplanetary missions to Mars, give scientists access to huge volumes of new observations and data. Sifting through all this information to understand the emergence of life in the universe will take a big, multidisciplinary network.

In collaboration with chemist and fellow Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak and astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, Queloz announced the formation of such a network at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Washington, DC. The Origins Federation brings together researchers studying the origins of life at Cambridge, ETH Zurich, Harvard University, and The University of Chicago.

Together, Federation scientists will explore the chemical and physical processes of living organisms and environmental conditions hospitable to supporting life on other planets. “The Origins Federation builds upon a long-standing collegial relationship strengthened through a shared collaboration in a recently completed project with the Simons Foundation,” said Queloz.

These collaborations support the work of researchers like Dr Emily Mitchell from Cambridge's Department of Zoology. Mitchell is co-director of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe and an ecological time traveller. She uses field-based laser-scanning and statistical mathematical ecology on 580-million-year-old fossils of deep-sea organisms to determine the driving factors that influence the macro-evolutionary patterns of life on Earth.

Speaking at AAAS, Mitchell took participants back to four billion years ago when Earth’s early atmosphere - devoid of oxygen and steeped in methane – showed its first signs of microbial life. She spoke about how life survives in extreme environments and then evolves offering potential astrobiological insights into the origins of life elsewhere in the universe.

“As we begin to investigate other planets through the Mars missions, biosignatures could reveal whether or not the origin of life itself and its evolution on Earth is just a happy accident or part of the fundamental nature of the universe, with all its biological and ecological complexities,” said Mitchell.

The founding centres of the Origins Federation are The Origins of Life Initiative (Harvard University), Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life (ETH Zurich), the Center for the Origins of Life (University of Chicago), and the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe (University of Cambridge).

The Origins Federation will pursue scientific research topics of interest to its founding centres with a long-term perspective and common milestones. It will strive to establish a stable funding platform to create opportunities for creative and innovative ideas, and to enable young scientists to make a career in this new field. The Origins Federation is open to new members, both centres and individuals, and is committed to developing the mechanisms and structure to achieve that aim.

“The pioneering work of Professor Queloz has allowed astronomers and physicists to make advances that were unthinkable only a few years ago, both in the discovery of planets which could host life and the development of techniques to study them,” said Professor Andy Parker, head of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. “But now we need to bring the full range of our scientific understanding to bear in order to understand what life really is and whether it exists on these newly discovered planets. The Cavendish Laboratory is proud to host the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe and to partner with the Origins Federation to lead this quest.”

Scientists from the University of Cambridge, ETH Zurich, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago have founded the Origins Federation, which will advance our understanding of the emergence and early evolution of life, and its place in the cosmos.

ETH Zurich/NASAL-R: Emily Mitchell, Didier Queloz, Kate Adamal, Carl Zimmer

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Researchers devise a new path toward ‘quantum light’

Thu, 02/02/2023 - 16:00

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, along with colleagues from the US, Israel and Austria, developed a theory describing a new state of light, which has controllable quantum properties over a broad range of frequencies, up as high as X-ray frequencies. Their results are reported in the journal Nature Physics.

The world we observe around us can be described according to the laws of classical physics, but once we observe things at an atomic scale, the strange world of quantum physics takes over. Imagine a basketball: observing it with the naked eye, the basketball behaves according to the laws of classical physics. But the atoms that make up the basketball behave according to quantum physics instead.

“Light is no exception: from sunlight to radio waves, it can mostly be described using classical physics,” said lead author Dr Andrea Pizzi, who carried out the research while based at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. “But at the micro and nanoscale so-called quantum fluctuations start playing a role and classical physics cannot account for them.”

Pizzi, who is currently based at Harvard University, worked with Ido Kaminer’s group at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and colleagues at MIT and the University of Vienna to develop a theory that predicts a new way of controlling the quantum nature of light.

“Quantum fluctuations make quantum light harder to study, but also more interesting: if correctly engineered, quantum fluctuations can be a resource,” said Pizzi. “Controlling the state of quantum light could enable new techniques in microscopy and quantum computation.”

One of the main techniques for generating light uses strong lasers. When a strong enough laser is pointed at a collection of emitters, it can rip some electrons away from the emitters and energise them. Eventually, some of these electrons recombine with the emitters they were extracted from, and the excess energy they absorbed is released as light. This process turns the low-frequency input light into high-frequency output radiation.

“The assumption has been that all these emitters are independent from one another, resulting in output light in which quantum fluctuations are pretty featureless,” said Pizzi. “We wanted to study a system where the emitters are not independent, but correlated: the state of one particle tells you something about the state of another. In this case, the output light starts behaving very differently, and its quantum fluctuations become highly structured, and potentially more useful.”

To solve this type of problem, known as a many body problem, the researchers used a combination of theoretical analysis and computer simulations, where the output light from a group of correlated emitters could be described using quantum physics.

The theory, whose development was led by Pizzi and Alexey Gorlach from the Technion, demonstrates that controllable quantum light can be generated by correlated emitters with a strong laser. The method generates high-energy output light, and could be used to engineer the quantum-optical structure of X-rays.

“We worked for months to get the equations cleaner and cleaner until we got to the point where we could describe the connection between the output light and the input correlations with just one compact equation. As a physicist, I find this beautiful,” said Pizzi. “Looking forward, we would like to collaborate with experimentalists to provide a validation of our predictions. On the theory side of things, our work suggests many-body systems as a resource for generating quantum light, a concept that we want to investigate more broadly, beyond the setup considered in this work.”

The research was supported in part by the Royal Society. Andrea Pizzi is a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge.


Andrea Pizzi et al. ‘Light emission from strongly driven many-body systems.’ Nature Physics (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41567-022-01910-7

Researchers have theorised a new mechanism to generate high-energy ‘quantum light’, which could be used to investigate new properties of matter at the atomic scale.

David Wall via Getty Images Design of a glowing fractal pattern with stars floating on a black background

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.