Federal Centre for Complexity and Exobiology

About COEX









About the centre (details)

Background and motivation

Environment and Space interact decisively with human activity. They constitute a frame for the large scale realization of phenomena anticipated by the laws of nature which are usually observed at the more modest scale of the laboratory and, conversely, they have constituted on several occasions a source of inspiration for fundamental scientific discoveries that could not be envisaged had one been limited to ordinary laboratory conditions.

Last but not least they are the depositories of unique information on the origin of the universe as one knows it today and, more particularly, of the evolutionary processes leading to primitive life and to its more advanced forms of intelligence, which are at the heart of exobiology.

A common theme underlying these issues is complexity as manifested by the multitude of possible outcomes of an evolution, from the molecular to the cosmological scale. This feature is in turn related to the non-linear character of the underlying laws and suggests a new attitude towards the description of nature, where the traditional deterministic view is to be complemented with probabilistic considerations.

In this respect environmental and space science meet the concerns of non-linear science, thermodynamics and statistical physics, three scientific branches which have recently experienced spectacular developments and currently constitute the basis of a systematic approach to the problematic of complex systems.

The interest for the methodology of complex systems and for the related fields of non-linear science, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics in the understanding of some basic features of atmospheric and climate dynamics was recognized some time ago and gave rise to fruitful collaborations between Belgian federal and academic institutions.

The present proposal aims at building on existing affinities in order to consolidate and to amplify the collaboration and to position favorably the Belgian scientific community at the international level.

The originality of the proposed Center is the synergy between Exo/Astrobiology - a priority area of space agencies on both sides of the Atlantic  - and Complexity theory, an area in which Belgian researchers have made widely recognized pioneering contributions.


Training and organizational activities

The Centre aims at positioning itself as an international Center of excellence hosting post-doctoral researchers, training Ph.D. students and organizing advanced courses, seminars, workshops or major international conferences.


Participation to international programs

Exploration by the means of astronomical telescopes, satellites and space missions contributes to the investigation of possible life habitats in our solar system, to the search for exoplanets and to establish the link between in falling extraterrestrial matter and the jump-start of life on Earth.

In this respect, Exo/Astrobiology will benefit from and will stimulate a number of space exploration programs in the future (i.e. within AURORA program and the new ESA Inspiration Initiative for Exploration). Belgium currently participates in astronomical, microgravity and planetary space missions which will investigate exo/astrobiological aspects during their operation phase (ISS, MARS-EXPRESS, ROSETTA, COROT, ENVISAT ...).

Within this framework, activities in the Centre should come to the conception of new experiments at both scientific and operational level, to their insertion within the framework of international research for space sciences and eventually to the realization of specific space missions, more particularly within the AURORA program.

In addition, the Center will promote the participation to other international programs, notably those sponsored by the European Union.


Public outreach

Exo/Astrobiology raises questions about life’s origin, evolution, distribution and destiny in the Universe, questions that have a broad societal interest and that can inspire the next generations of scientists, philosophers, and citizens.

In addition to exciting scientific discoveries, the ethics of exploration and the possible societal impact of discovering extraterrestrial life should be debated within the society at large. Several educational programs will be developed for the general public, including web pages presenting the Centre for Complexity and Exobiology, conferences for adults, and activities in primary and secondary schools.


The partnership, structure and function of the Centre

The proposed Centre will integrate the communities of Complex systems and of Federal Institutions with academic research groups focused on life sciences and space sciences. The complexity and Federal institutions communities have interacted during the past years through the Royal Meteorological Institute, among others within the framework of Phase IV of the Interuniversity attraction poles program. These synergies combined with the internationally acknowledged expertise will serve as basis for an innovative approach to Astrobiology.

The following scheme summarizes the principal nodes and the existing links of the Center. Extensions to other institutions beyond these founding members will be considered when the structure of the proposed Centre will be fully specified.

The scientific staff involved in this project amounts to 55 senior scientists (holding permanent positions), 54 post-doctoral researchers and 26 Ph.D. researchers. A board consisting of one representative per participating Institution will be in charge of the administration of its activities. The board will elect a three-member executive committee constituted of representatives of the federal Institutions and of the academic Institutions of the two linguistic communities.


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