Thursday, July 26, 2007

FIAS, the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies

This week, I was again at the new campus of my old university. The science departments of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University are all moving out of downtown Frankfurt into the fields of Niederursel, where new buildings keep springing up at an extraordinary rate. One of these new buildings is especially eye-catching with its bright-red finish.

This is the new building of FIAS, the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, and it's interesting not only because of its colour - it's one of the first public research institutes in Germany financed to a large extent by the money of private sponsors.

Universities in Germany have traditionally been financed by public money of the state and federal governments, and they usually don't have large funds at their own. Frankfurt University is a bit special in this respect, since it has been founded in 1914 by wealthy Frankfurt citizens. While today it is a publicly funded university as it is common in Germany, there is a strong tradition of private sponsoring of research and higher education.

So, a few years ago, theoretical physicist Walter Greiner and neuroscientist Wolf Singer started using their connections to raise private funds to establish a new kind of institute, which was supposed to be legally independent, but closely connected to the university and its science departments. It should bring together theorists from such diverse areas as biology, chemistry, neuroscience, physics, and computer science in order to address problems all revolving around a common theme: The study of structure formation and self-organization in complex systems.

This was the beginning of FIAS.

Today, there are more than 50 scientists, guests and students working together on cooperative phenomena on length scales ranging from quarks in colour superconductivity and heavy ion collisions over atoms in atomic clusters and macromolecules to cells in the immune system and the brain. Details and more links can be found on the pages of the FIAS scientists.

The training of graduate students is organized in a Graduate School. Last summer, I was involved in the compilation of a brochure presenting the FIAS, and I was fascinated by the really inspiring atmosphere among the students, who come from all over the world and form very diverse scientific backgrounds, but were always involved in interesting discussions.

In September, the FIAS is supposed to move into the new, red building, which was built for the institute by a private sponsor, the Giersch Foundation. There, FIAS scientist will have a place to work and think - it will be interesting to follow the outcome of this kind of "experiment".



Bee said...

Thanks Stefan, for this post. I left Frankfurt around the time FIAS began to come into life. Despite the fact that I personally would have liked to see more effort into the direction of theoretical physics specifically, I have to admit that I've been very impressed by the foundation of that institute. However, I guess it will take some more time to see whether the interdisciplinary research can be considered successful. Best,


Arun said...

Great news, and I like the photograph too!

Doug said...

Hi Stephan and Bee,

I like seeing physics and neuroscience working together as at FIAS.

I see that John at 'Cosmic Variance' has a post 'Billion Dollar Baby' on the CMS which relates to your recent post of Nature and the LHC.

Solenoids maybe a means of conceptually relating the various forces, including gravity.

See 'Iron Core Solenoid' contrasting air / iron solenoids, each with helical wiring [Hyperphysics, GSU, next to last topic that webpage]

I made a similar comment at the Reference Frame in 'Veneziano & Gasperini: book'.

stefan said...

Hi Arun,

I like the photograph too!

thanks - in fact I 've made tons of photos, and Bee has chosen these two of them :-)

Dear Bee, Doug,

I guess it will take some more time to see whether the interdisciplinary research can be considered successful.

I like seeing physics and neuroscience working together as at FIAS.

I agree, it certainly takes some time, and effort, to fill such general and vague statements as "study of structure formation and self-organization in complex systems" with definite content, and to establish a really fruitful interdisciplinary cooperation.

My impression was that the best way to start - what they are doing - is to exploit similarities in the methods which are used. For example, some of problems studied at FIAS in quark matter, atomic and molecular physics, and neuroscience all involve the search for clusters in large ensembles of particles, or neurons. So, it's a good start to discuss and exchange ideas about the the agorithms used for these tasks, which may be the same for all at the end of the day.

Best, stefan

QUASAR9 said...

Hi Stefan,
how thoughts are created and where thoughts come from, how memory is stored and memories are accessed is clearly cutting edge 'thinking'
almost as topical or ground beaking as whether the soup energy (quark gluon plasma) had mass, or acquired mass as it expanded and cooled.

Whether it be simple impulses or chemical reactions in the brain - or perhaps something more - in essence define and differentiate humans from everything else. Hard to grasp that the memory of our 'complete' individual life experience may be stored in something infinitesimally small.
And yet we feel thing with such intensity, whether its emotions or physical pleasure & pain.

Even more amazing the concept that we may see our whole life flash before us (before our eyes, or behind our eyes). Of course in the movies these 'memory' chips are transplantable, but maybe we only have time to experience one lifetime at a time. Imagine if we had the thoughts we had when we were ten or twenty still floating around our head - not the 'general' thoughts, but the day to day thoughts (of that day or month or year).

I wonder if it is evolution that has defined which 'temporal' memories we preserve, ie those which are building blocks of 'knowledge' and those that are 'repetitive' or 'intuitive' as opposed to those which are passing memories. After all face recognition has to be relevant to what faces look like today, what the faces looked like when we were kids would mean little to us now -

I sometimes find it strange looking at an image when I was young, Yes, I was young once (or maybe twice, lol!). But seeing the picture though I recognise it, and I KNOW it was me, and I can almost put myself in that space and time, at the same time it is almost as if it were someone else - and I had simply being in 'his' head seeing the world thru his eyes.

But there you go thoughts just flow and flow, and if we are not careful it just turns to aimless ramble, as we ramble on.

stefan said...

Hi quasar,

how thoughts are created and where thoughts come from, how memory is stored and memories are accessed is clearly cutting edge 'thinking'

I completely agree - that is one of the deep mysteries in science, and one of the most exciting topics to investigate and to think about!

The FIAS people are cooperating on that with the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research, where they try to gain data from the brains of cats and monkeys.

If I understand it correctly, results so far seem to indicate that "thoughts" and "memories" may be realized in the brain as patterns of activity of large groups of neurons, cycles of activity that repeat themselves and can somehow be triggered by external stimuli or other cycles. I guess that this means that the "hard disk" paradigma of the brain, and the idea of a "memory chip" you may plug in and out, could be fundamentally flawed.

Moreover, it may also well be that case that the differences between human brains and the brains of other higher animals are only gradual.

Very interesting stuff to follow!

Best, stefan

Doug said...

Hi Stefan,

There is an excellent Nobel Lecture by Eric Kandel [physiology 2000] on memory in the sea slug Alpysia.

"The Molecular Biology of Memory Storage: A Dialog between Genes and Synapses"

stefan said...

Hi Doug,

thanks for the link!