The Virginia Tech College of Science opens its J. Mark Sowers Distinguished Lecture Series for the fall 2017 semester with Professor Nigel D. Goldenfeld, a theoretical physicist and U.S. National Academy of Sciences member from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Goldenfeld holds a Center for Advanced Study Professorship and a Swanlund Endowed Chair at Urbana-Champaign, and appointments in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Genomic Biology. He serves as director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute for Universal Biology at Urbana-Champaign and heads the Biocomplexity Group at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. Goldenfeld also founded the high-performance software company NumeriX and wrote a graduate textbook considered a standard in the field of statistical mechanics.

As the J. Mark Sowers Distinguished Lecture Series inaugural speaker on biophysics, Goldenfeld will talk about theoretical physics and its impact on the first 1 billion years of life on Earth. His talk takes place 7:30 p.m. Sept. 14 at 190 Goodwin Hall on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg.

The event is free and open to the public. 

“Life on Earth is wonderfully diverse, with a multitude of life forms, structures, and evolutionary mechanisms,” Goldenfeld said of his talk. “However, there are two aspects of life that are universal, shared by all known organisms. These are the genetic code, which governs how DNA is converted into the proteins making up your body, and the unexpected left-handedness of the amino acids in your body. One would expect that your amino acids were a mixture of left- and right-handed molecules, but none are right-handed.”

Goldenfeld will describe how these universal aspects of biology can be understood as arising from evolution, but generalized to an era where genes, species, and individuality had not yet emerged. He will discuss to what extent one can find general principles of biology that can apply to all life in the universe, and what this would mean for the nascent field of astrobiology. 

He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1982, and from 1982 to 1985 served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He is the fourth speaker in the 2017 J. Mark Sowers Distinguished Lecture Series, following Arthur B. McDonald in April, and Naomi Halas and David Reitze, both in February. Goldenfeld’s talk is the first for the fall 2017 series, with J. David Sweatt of Vanderbilt University finishing the yearly run Sept. 26.

The series is funded by J. Mark Sowers, a Richmond, Virginia-based businessman and longtime supporter of the College of Science. The lecture series is designed to serve as a forum to exchange new and innovative ideas in scientific fields, including physics, nanotechnology, and neuroscience. Of the lecture series, Sowers previously has said, “I hope that people will be inspired by the lecture series and to bring attention to Virginia Tech and its brilliant researchers for the advancement of fundamental physics.”

A programming committee for the series is comprised of faculty from the college’s Department of Physics, the Academy of Integrated Science, and the School of Neuroscience at Virginia Tech. This group developed and recruited the guest lecturers.

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