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We are all alive, but “life” is something we struggle to understand. How do we distinguish a “living organism” from an emergent dynamical system like a hurricane, or a resource-consuming chemical reaction like a forest fire, or an information-processing system like a laptop computer? There is probably no one crisp set of criteria that delineates life from non-life, but it’s worth the exercise to think about what we really mean, especially as the quest to find life outside the confines of the Earth picks up steam. Sara Imari Walker planned to become a cosmologist before shifting her focus to astrobiology, and is now a leading researcher on the origin and nature of life. We talk about what life is and how to find it, with a special focus on the role played by information and computation in living beings.
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Sara Imari Walker received her Ph.D. in physics from Dartmouth college. She is currently Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, Deputy Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, and Associate Director of the ASU-Santa Fe Institute Center for Biosocial Complex Systems. She is the co-founder of the astrobiology social network SAGANet, and serves on the Board of Directors for Blue Marble Space.