Leonardo Art/Science Evening Rendezvous of July 2020

Temporary Online Edition


Exploring the Frontiers of Knowledge and Imagination, Fostering Interdisciplinary Networking

Hosted from Stanford during July 2020
by Piero Scaruffi

A L.A.S.E.R. was planned for July 2020. Since we cannot hold the physical event, we invited the speakers to switch to an online presentation, and, since we don't need to book a room in a building, we let the speakers pick the best date for their talk. In most cases it will be a "fireside chat" rather than the traditional lecture. The Life Art Science Tech (L.A.S.T.) dialogs.

(Note: All times are California time)


  • July 8 @ 6pm:
    UC Irvine molecular biologist Luis Villarreal on "Living in the Virosphere: A Virus-first Theory of the Evolution of Life"
    Register here or at
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    Download the slides Luis Villarreal is Professor Emeritus in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at UC Irvine and the founding director of the Center for Virus Research. Luis Villarreal, the author of two books: Viruses and the Evolution of Life and Origin of Group Identity, has studied viruses for about 50 years. Villarreal's PhD advisor was John Holland at UC San Diego, and Villarreal did postdoctoral research in virology with Nobel laureate Paul Berg at Stanford University.

    We now know that not all viruses are bad for us: for example, viruses play a role in the human microbiome. More importantly, viruses are drivers of genetic innovation and therefore of the evolution of life. While we have no definitive evidence of when the first virus emerged, we can speculate that, once created, viruses coevolved with their hosts. What role do viruses play in the evolution of life? Are viruses a fundamental force in shaping the trajectory of life on Earth? Did viruses shape our genome? Are viruses part of our genome? How much of today's human genome is virus? Is viral infection a force that drives biological evolution toward higher complexity? Have we humans been selected by viruses? Our world is predominantly prokaryotic (bacteria and archaea). The prokaryotes are the most ancient, diverse and adaptable of all cellular life forms on Earth. But even more abundant and diverse and adaptable are the viruses of prokaryotes, now known to be the most numerous biological entities on Earth in all habitats. Concepts of "virus communication" and "RNA communication" may shed new light on how viruses affect their hosts, and persisting viral agents may explain the widespread "communal" aspect of prokaryotic life. According to Villarreal, persistent infection by a virus population alters the genetic background of the host (its identity); viruses and other genetic parasites play key roles in the evolution of all life and had a role in the origin of life, and not simply by providing negative selection. By looking at key features of life as we know it on our planet, including immune systems, replication, transcription, translation, and repair in all its steps and substeps, Villarreal argues that all these features and properties are the result of evolutionary innovations caused, generated, and introduced by viruses, RNA consortia, and other genetic parasites. These infectious agents are the innovators of all life. They insert and delete, adapt, modify, and, most importantly, counterbalance competing genetic identities. They cooperate, edit genetic codes, and are at the basis of the secrets of life - including human life.


  • July 9 @ 6pm: UC Berkeley neuroscientist Bruno Olshausen on "Visual Perception and the Brain: What we know, what we don't know, and what we don't even know we don't know."
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    Bruno Olshausen is Professor of Neuroscience and Optometry at the University of California, Berkeley. He also serves as Director of the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, an interdisciplinary research group focusing on mathematical and computational models of brain function. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in Computation and Neural Systems from the California Institute of Technology. Prior to Berkeley he was a member of the Departments of Psychology and Neurobiology, Physiology & Behavior at UC Davis. During postdoctoral work with David Field at Cornell he developed the sparse coding model of visual cortex which provides a linking principle between natural scene statistics and the response properties of visual neurons. Olshausen's current research aims to understand the information processing strategies employed by the brain for doing tasks such as object recognition and scene analysis. This work seeks not only to advance our understanding of the brain, but also to discover new algorithms for scene analysis based on how brains work.

    Topics to be discussed: what is perception? what new things have we learned about the brain in the last 4-5 years? what is the benefit of mixing computational science and neuroscience? are there new tools in neuroscience that open new doors? how far are we from mapping the whole brain? your expectations for what we can discover in the near future? what still puzzles you most? what do the brains of insects and spiders tell us about the origin of intelligence? opinions on the state of AI? opinions on computer-brain interfaces? is there something that neuroscience can tell us about how to keep our brain in good shape? what do we know about neurotransmitters? why are there so many instead of just one? does each neurotransmitter create its own sub-brain? what do we know about different types of neurons? what about somatic mosaicism in the brain? any guess on the giant neurons that span both hemispheres? what's the connection between the immune system and the brain?




The Stanford LASERs are sponsored by the Stanford Deans of: Engineering; Humanities & Sciences; and Medicine; by Continuing Studies.