SETI Chat: Can We Define Life?

By Carl Kruse

The following blog post is an excerpt from information provided by the SETI Institute on their upcoming online chat “Can We Define Life? Should We?” hosted by Wendi Zhang and schedule for Wednesday, August 21, 2021 at 7PM PDT. The Carl Kruse Nonprofits Blog encourages all to tune in for what promises to be a great chat

Carl Kruse Nonprofits Blog - Seti Invite image


What is the difference between you and a rock? Are stars alive? Is a computer virus a living being? These may seem easy questions, but scientists have struggled to formulate a universal definition of life, to draw the line between the living and the inanimate. Can life even be defined? Is such a task even helpful?

We think we can intuitively recognize whether something is alive or not. But nature shows many examples that are difficult to categorize as life or non-life. The challenge may intensify as other worlds in our universe open up to exploration.

The SETI Institute has invited two scientists to this month’s “SETI Talks” to discuss these issues. Haley Sapers, an astrobiologist at Caltech who studies organisms such as those we might find far from Earth, and Carol Cleland, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who wrote “The Quest for a Universal Theory of Life: Searching for life as we don’t know it.”

Joined by Molly Bentley, executive producer and co-host of the Big Picture Science radio show, these two scientists will explore ideas about life based on what we know from biological, philosophical and physical perspectives. They will discuss whether a singular definition of life is possible or even relevant – could such an approach blind us to finding something more profound?

The hopes of this conversation is to shed light on what we are, living creatures searching for an explanation to differentiate ourselves from a rock or a star. And perhaps open our minds to possibilities beyond a simple definition of life.

The chat will take place online on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 at 7pm PDT and anyone interested can register for free here.

Dr. Haley Sapers received her doctorate as a Canada Vanier Scholar in Planetary Science at Western University in Canada on evolution and preservation of life. She completed postdoctoral work at UBC, McGill, Caltech, and JPL. Haley was a Human Frontier in Science Program postdoctoral fellow working jointly between the University of Southern California, the California Institute of Technology, and the NASA Jet propulsion laboratory where she worked with Mars 2020 SHERLOC team, experimenting with deep UV Raman in biological systems. Dr. Sapers is currently a Research Associate in Planetary Exploration and Astrobiology and the interim director of the Planetary Volatiles Laboratory York University, Toronto, Canada where she works with Prof. John Moores testing novel methods of measuring methane to improve our understanding of near-surface atmospheric chemistry on Mars. She is also a collaborator on the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity Rover) science team. Haley holds a visiting scientist position at the California Institute of Technology where she is involved in studying the structure and architecture of deep subsurface microbial communities 4850’ underground at the Sanford Underground Research Facility and in ocean floor methane seeps. Haley studies the biotic-abiotic interface understanding how this dynamic system changes over space and time with implications for early life on Earth, deep subsurface microbial communities, and the search for life beyond Earth. Her research on meteorite impact cratering as a fundamental geological process in planetary evolution highlights the role cratering plays in creating, maintaining, and preserving habitability.

Carl Kruse Nonprofits Blog - Carol Cleland

Carol Cleland is Professor of Philosophy and Director of The Center for the Study of Origins at the University of Colorado Boulder. Carol is also a SETI Institute affiliate. She specializes in the philosophy of science. Her research interests include scientific methodology (historical science and the field sciences considered generally the role of anomalies in scientific discovery, and the concept of an historical natural kind in mineralogy), scientific theories and the use of models (especially in the historical sciences), philosophy of biology (microbiology, astrobiology, nature and origin(s) of life, and the hypothesis of a ‘shadow biosphere,’ a term which she coined). She has published in major scientific journals (e.g., PNASGeology, and Astrobiology) as well as top-ranked philosophy journals (British Journal of Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Science, and Biology and Philosophy). She is the author of The Quest for a Universal Theory of Life: Searching for life as we don’t know it and Co-Editor (with Mark Bedau) of The Nature of Life: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives from Philosophy and Science. She is currently working on a new book on the role of anomalies in scientific discovery.

About the SETI Institute: Based in Mountain View, California, the SETI institute is the world’s pre-eminent organization focused on the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Its more than 100 research scientists investigate the nature of the universe and the prevalence of life beyond earth.

Since 2015, the blog has highlighted non-profit organizations and people making the world a better place. The blog has previously covered the SETI Institute in articles such as, Seti Are We Alone and reviews of the SETI Institute. Blog members were involved in the SETI@Home project (also here) and closely follow developments in SETI and space exploration. Click here for the Carl Kruse SETI Profile.

CONTACT: carl AT carlkruse DOT com


  1. Ephram Cochran

    I missed it! I looked on the SETI site but don’t see any more upcoming chats in the near future but i signed on to their newsletter.

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