The Origin of Life: An enigma wrapped in mystery

The Origin of Life: an enigma wrapped in mystery

Professor Nigel J Mason


Tuesday 17th March at 6pm

Lecture room 401 Physics Department, University of Malta, Tal-Qroqq


Three basic questions have fascinated and intrigued humanity for centuries, questions that are   pivotal to the understanding and appreciation of our place in the Universe:

1. How did life begin and evolve on Earth ?

2. What are the conditions under which life can exist?

3. Do conditions exist elsewhere in the Universe which may sustain life?

Indeed the discovery of life (even in its simplest form) on a planet other than Earth would be a defining moment in human history, while understanding the origins of life itself would be a crowning achievement of human scientific endeavour. Today, for the first time, it is possible to develop a realistic, rigorous scientific programme to address these questions and begin to provide answers to these fundamental questions. In this talk I will review the scientific progress and discuss some of the social-political consequences of such research.


Professor Nigel Mason was born in 1962 son of Sir John Mason FRS, Former Director of the Meteorological Office and former President of the IOP – so he was born into Physics! Graduating from University College London in 1983 with a First class degree in Physics he completed his PhD on electron scattering in laser fields also from University College London in 1987. After holding a SERC Postdoctoral Fellowship he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at UCL from 1990 to 1998 then a Lecturer and Reader (2000) before moving to the Open University as Professor of Physics in September, 2002 where he founded the Atomic, Molecular, Optical and Plasma (AMOP) physics group – now comprising 9 academic staff, 5 Postdocs and 12 PhD students as well as hosting more than a dozen visitors annually.

His research covers a wide range of topics spanning physics and chemistry including astrochemistry; atmospheric science, surface science and spectroscopy. His research on the formation of molecules by irradiation of low temperature (20K) ices has led to new insights into the chemical processes by which the prebiotic molecules of life may have formed (and are being formed) in the interstellar medium. Most recently his research has extended to study radiation damage processes within biomolecular systems including DNA and the survivability of bacteria under panspermia conditions and planetary environments. Such research has developed as part of the Open University’s rapidly developing astrobiology research programme

A Fellow of the Institute of Physics, The Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Astronomical Society he serves on several national and international committees and is chair of several European (international) collaborations and in 2008 was made an Honorary Professor of the University of Innsbruck, Austria. In 2007 he was made and Officer of the British Empire (OBE) for his ‘services for science’.


Astronomical Sciences Group, University Department of Physics for the International Year of Astronomy 2009 Malta committee


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