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@ Sci Foo

Who and/or what was fresh and new at SciFoo '09?

Victoria Stodden, George Dyson, Lee Smolin, Daniel Kahneman, Linda Stone, Timo Hannay


VICTORIA STODDEN
Computational Legal Scholar, Yale Law School

In Pete Worden's discussion of modeling future climate change, I wondered about the reliability of simulation results. Worden conceded that there are several models doing the same predictions he showed, and they can give wildly opposing results. We need to develop the machinery to quantify error in simulation models just as we routinely do for conventional statistical modeling: simulation is often the only empirical tool we have for guiding policy responses to some of our most pressing issues.

But the newest I saw was Bob Metcalfe's call for us to imagine what to do with the coming overabundance of energy. Metcalfe likened solving energy scarcity to the early days of Internet development: because of the generative design of Internet technology, we now have things that were unimagined in the early discussions, such as YouTube and online video. According to Metcalfe, we need to envision our future as including a "squanderable abundance" of energy, and use Internet lessons such as standardization and distribution of power sources to get there, rather than
building for energy conservation.


GEORGE DYSON
Science Historian; Author, Darwin Among the Machines

What a difference a year makes! In July 2008 Edge was abuzz (not yet a-twitter) with responses to Chris Anderson's "The End of Theory" (a revision of his Wired cover story "The End of Science") — and SciFoo 2008 was preoccupied with examining how (and how freely) collaboration across extremely large data sets would change the landscape of science. We were kids with a new telescope. One year later, only a few sessions were concerned with the workings of the telescope, and most were back to good old-fashioned science: looking at the stars.

Highlights for me (among revelations at every turn): Nat Torkington's two consecutive hours of gong-enforced 5-minute lightning talks; Bob (Ethernet) Metcalfe modestly trying to clue us in as to how to do for the energy stream what he did for the bit stream; Pete Worden's understated talk on Paleoclimate that should have been titled: "Climate Change got you Worried? Try Chemistry Change!"


LEE SMOLIN
Physcist, Perimeter Institute; Author, The Trouble With Phyiscs

Janna Levin's songs pairs of black holes sing as they whirl around and onto each other, coming to us as waves in the geometry of spacetime.

A lunch conversation with Heather Berlin, Brandyn Webb, Daniel Barcay, Christof Koch, Michael Freedman, Janna Levin and others, following up on Larry Page’s presentation on AI. I had the impression that over lunch the proponents and skeptics of AI were able to hear what each other was saying, rather than just talk past each other as is too often the case. We didn't solve the problem, but I felt we could at least agree on some useful definitions and criteria for further discussion.

The presentations of Brian Arthur and David Wolpert on the failings of neoclassical economic theory and the ensuing comments by Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, Robin Hanson, and Hal Varian. What impressed me was that these distinguished economists did not dispute the critique of neoclassical economics given in the session, rather they offered advice as to how to get such critiques heard by the community of economists.

Neri Oxman’s presentation of her vision of an architecture with the design of materials integrated into the design of buildings. Physicists can talk, but her universe is genuinely elegant!


DANIEL KAHNEMAN
Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton; Recipient, the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (2002)

I didn't know what to expect and I was surprised at how interesting I found many of the talks. It was marvelous.


LINDA STONE
Writer, Consultant on "Continuous Partial Attention"

The Friday night introductions at SciFoo seemed to offer a concentration of words and phrases related to space travel, neuroscience, consciousness, global pandemics and climate.

Fun: Ani Patel and Vijay Iyer on music, rhythm and the brain. How are humans a musical species? What happens to our brains and our physiology on music?

Fear: Nathan Wolfe, Larry Brilliant and Derrick Smith on Swine Flu, Bird Flu, and antigenic mapping.

Fabulous: Nat Torkington's lightning rounds. Five minutes per participant on ideas. Concise, fast-paced, science smorgasbord.


TIMO HANNAY
Publisher, Nature Online

People talk of the sublime and the ridiculous as if they are opposites. But having attended Science Foo Camp these last few years (not because I'm especially worthy but merely because I'm one of the organisers), I have become ever more interested in the space between these two alleged extremes. For it seems to me that the best Sci Foo sessions are the ones where you can't quite decide whether what's being described is sublime or ridiculous — or perhaps some strange quantum superposition of the two.

The first discussion I joined at this year's event was proposed by science historian George Dyson. He described the work and collaborations of Stanisław Ulam, perhaps one of the laziest but undoubtedly one of the most brilliant contributors to the legendary period of American physics that gave us the atom bomb, digital computers and much else besides. Among many other ideas of Ulam's, George described Project Orion, a top-secret 1950s scheme to carry people to Mars in vast spaceships propelled by nuclear bombs. It sounded hare-brained, but the Project Orion conspirators were the greatest minds of their age, and they were completely serious. Welcome to the sublime and ridiculous world of Sci Foo.

Perhaps my favourite talk of all was Rob Cook's description of the creative process at Pixar. It was an enlightening and entertaining blend of physics, computer science and cartoonery that left me in awe of the people who achieve such enormous feats for our mere entertainment — as if the sublimity of the Apollo program had been devised to give us the ridiculousness (in a good sense) of the Flintstones. I particularly liked Rob's characterisation of the two-step creative cycle at Pixar: First, artists request the impossible (because, being artists, they cannot tell what is technically possible and what is not). Second, the techies agree (because, being techies, they are too proud to admit that there are limits to their skills). Thus are great technical and creative achievements delivered to a cinema near you.

Continuing with the theme of the sublime and ridiculous, Danny Kahneman gave a wonderful exposition on the ways in which the human mind, while capable of stupendous acts of logical reasoning, can also lead us astray on the simplest questions. (Example: "How many animals did Moses take into the ark?" Most respondents do not notice that the answer is 'none' because the traditional story concerns Noah, not Moses.) It turns out that our minds usually rely on a low-effort rough-and-ready process for making decisions ('System 1'). More logical and thorough, but also effortful processes ('System 2') only kick in under very specific circumstances. Our irrational mind, like our unconscious mind, is perhaps more influential than we'd care to admit.

A number of sessions and demos concerned music, an apparently ridiculous contrivance for organisms like us to find so sublime. Ani Patel presented evidence that music is neither purely for social or mating purposes, nor simply a by-product of other more evolutionary useful mental capacities. Rather, it is an invention, but one that our brains — equipped as they are to use language and respond to patterns — are especially prone to enjoy. In passing, he gave us an update on Snowball, the YouTube-famous cockatoo who dances in time to a rhythm considerably better than I do. Ani was joined by Vijay Iyer, formerly a physicist and now a professional jazz pianist, who on the previous evening had given a sublime practical demonstration of his art (the only ridiculous thing being Vijay's eye-popping dexterity at the keyboard).

There was a lot on science education too. Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") discussed teaching maths to kids using videos delivered to mobile phones. Simon Quellen Field's displayed his miscellaneous and ingenious science toys (every bit as entertaining to me, an alleged grown-up, as they might be to my children). Theo Gray conducted a series of whiz-bang demos from his "Mad Science" collection (tagline: "Experiments you can do at home — but probably shouldn't"). These involved vast quantities of liquid nitrogen, supersaturated sodium acetate solution, and only a very occasional illicit flame. ArtistTiffany Ard displayed her beautiful illustrations, designed to inspire children to engage with scientific subjects. Also on the artistic front, MIT researcher Neri Oxman showed her nature- and science-inspired sculptures (one of them on loan from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Jorge Cham created hilarious comic strips, and Christian Bök told of his plan to encode a poem in the genome of a bacterium. Sublime or ridiculous? I vote for both.

As time for the final session approached I made my way to Elon Musk's gathering on space flight and the colonisation of Mars. Elon made his money selling PayPal to eBay and now splits his time between electric cars (Tesla Motors), solar energy (SolarCity) and space (SpaceX). With one successful orbital launch now behind them, SpaceX expect to be heading for the planets in a matter of years (and it sounds as if Elon intends to go himself sometime too). We discussed the very considerable challenges of shipping large numbers of people to Mars, what life there might be like, and why anyone should want to go in the first place. Yet more brilliant people with crazy ideas about travelling to Mars? We seemed to have come full circle, for this was nothing if not a latter day Project Orion — sublime, ridiculous and quintessentially Sci Foo.


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