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Indermohan Virk
Executive Director, William T. Patten Foundation

Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Natural history scholar Andrew Knoll kicks off Patten Foundation Lecture Series

January 20, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Patten Lecture Series will present Harvard University Fisher Professor of Natural History Andrew Herbert Knoll for two public lectures in early February. On Feb. 9 Knoll will speak on "Life on a Young Planet," and then on Feb. 11 he'll present on the topic, "Meridiani, Opportunity, and the Search for Life on Mars." Both lectures kicking off this year's William T. Patten Lecture Series will take place in Rawles Hall, room 100, at 7:30 p.m.

For "Life on a Young Planet" Knoll will discuss the kinds of life that characterized our planet's youth and middle age. Shells, bones, tracks, and trails record a history of animal evolution more than 600 million years long, in relation to the earth that is some 4.5 billion years old. Knoll will explain how the genealogical relationships among living organisms, inferred from molecular sequence comparisons, suggest that the deep history of life is microbial.

Over the past three decades, paleontologists have discovered a rich record of microbial life in rocks that long predate the earliest animals. Geochemical research has established a complementary record of environmental change, with major transitions that parallel those found among fossils providing an emerging general pattern of long-term co-evolution between life and environments throughout our planetary history.

In Knoll's second lecture, "Meridiani, Opportunity, and the Search for Life on Mars," he will discuss whether there is, or was once, life on Mars. He will address the debate about Martian life that remains unresolved, even though over the past decade, unprecedented observations have enabled us to address key astrobiological questions in new ways. This lecture will examine the observations of ancient sedimentary rocks made by the NASA rover, Opportunity, at Meridiani Planum.

NASA's Opportunity has provided both physical and chemical evidence that liquid water once existed at the Martian surface. At the same time, however, Opportunity's chemical data suggest that brines percolating through accumulating Meridiani sediments grew salty enough to inhibit most known life, even the hardiest microorganisms. Chemical observations further suggest that the sites investigated by Opportunity and its identical twin, Spirit, have not seen much water since their minerals were precipitated billions of years ago. Remote sensing of Martian landforms independently suggests that Mars has been cold and dry for most of its planetary history, sharply constraining continuing debate about Martian life.

Knoll is a paleontologist, sedimentary geologist, geochemist, evolutionary biologist and astrobiologist holding positions in both the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the Department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. His work focuses in part on the first four billion years of Earth's history --- Archean and Proterozoic paleontology and biogeochemistry. Specializing in the early evolution of life in the Proterozoic (544-2500 million years ago), he is arguably the foremost scholar on microfossils and on the use of stable isotope chemistry to learn more about the age and environments in which the earliest forms of life lived.

Extraordinary even amongst scientists of his own field, Knoll's research has contributed to an understanding of how organisms and the geochemical environment affect each other synergistically; to the diversification of plant life; to knowledge of how the earliest organisms diversified both in response to ocean and atmospheric chemistry; and to the metabolic processes through which these organisms have influenced the geochemistry from early times to the present.

Knoll's interests have led him beyond the terrestrial to the interplanetary. He is a principal investigator of the NASA National Astrobiology Institute team at Harvard, and a member of the Mars Exploration Rover science team.

For further information on Knoll, see

Patten Lecture Series History

The William T. Patten Foundation has provided generous funds to bring to IU Bloomington people of extraordinary national and international distinction since 1937 ---making it the oldes lecture series at Indiana University. More than 180 world-renowned scholars have lectured at Indiana University under its auspices. Noted specialists in their fields, speakers have been chosen for their ability to convey the significance of their work to a general audience. Chosen by a campus-wide faculty committee, Patten lecturers have represented over 50 academic departments and programs. Past lecturers have included Oscar Arias, Jorge Luis Borges, Noam Chomsky, Natalie Zemon Davis, Umberto Eco, Julian S. Huxley, Evelyn Fox Keller, Toni Morrison, Amos Oz, Helmuth Rilling, Edward Said, Amartya Sen, Wole Soyinka, Ren Thom, Lester Thurow, Strobe Talbott, and Martha Nussbaum.

William T. Patten received his A.B. degree in 1893 in history from IU. After graduation he settled in Indianapolis, where he made a career in real estate and politics, including serving as county auditor. He remained appreciative of the educational opportunities that IU had afforded him, and toward the end of his life, in 1931, he made a gift to the university in the form of liberty bonds and Indiana municipal and county bonds. The gift was to be held as an endowment bearing his name, and the income used for bringing to the campus eminent leaders in their fields for residence and lectures to enrich the intellectual life of the campus.

Remaining Patten Series lectures:

• W. J. T. Mitchell, Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor, Department of English, Department of Art History, University of Chicago, will speak on Tuesday, March 30, and Thursday, April 1, in Rawles Hall, room 100 at 7:30 p.m.

Mitchell teaches in both the English and the Art History departments and edits the interdisciplinary journal, Critical Inquiry, a quarterly devoted to critical theory in the arts and human sciences. He works particularly on the history and theories of media, visual art, and literature from the eighteenth century to the present, exploring the relations of visual and verbal representations in the culture and iconology (the study of images across the media). Through his own research and Critical Inquiry, he has published special issues on public art, psychoanalysis, pluralism, feminism, the sociology of literature, canons, race and identity, narrative, the politics of interpretation, postcolonial theory and many other topics.

• Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, will speak on Monday, April 12, in Whittenberger Auditorium and Wednesday, April 14, in Alumni Hall.

Described by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka as an "intellectual entrepreneur," Henry Louis "Skip" Gates is not only one of the leading African American intellectuals in the U.S., but also a familiar presence outside the academy who has revolutionized the study of the Black world. His charisma, creativity and commitment to Afro-American studies has led him to author books, essays, documentaries and reviews on a broad range of issues, including African and African American identity, slavery, race, feminism and dialect.

For a more complete history on William T. Patten and further details on the upcoming lecture series, visit

Inquires about the Patten Foundation and the Patten Lecture Series should be sent to