Monday, August 11, 2008

SciFoo Camp: Sessions

It is too bad I can't branch into several parallel sessions, sometimes the choices at the SciFoo Camp were really tough. All the rooms had whiteboards and beamers, technical support was always around the next corner, so things ran very smoothly. We were right next to the bistro, so had constant supply of food and drinks for free. The toilet-seats were heated (at least at the women's), and this week you could read there the 'Fixits on the Flusher No 95'. The building itself is a somewhat weird piece of architecture with a certain lack of right angles, kept in bright primary colors.

Here are some notes on the sessions I went to, I might pick up one or the other topic in more detail in a later post.


9:30 am
Anthropic Reasoning
Paul Davies, Robin Hanson

A discussion about the role and importance of the observer, mostly circling around the question what is an observer. The issue of what anthropic reasoning can or can't be good for wasn't really touched. Instead, there was the recurring question of how to count intelligent beings and the omnipresent problem to measure anything. I admittedly find such discussion somewhat pointless because its based on a notion that's just not well defined. If one wants to say anything there is the need to define sensible quantities to begin with as could e.g. be complexity, which was also mentioned by Martin Rees in this meeting. Interesting as this exchange was, I found it scientifically vague and not really insightful. The Doomsday Argument and Boltzman Brains plopped out of vacuum every now and then. I had the impression though that only half of the people in the room actually knew what we were talking about.

One of the participants remarked - completely without any intentional sarcasm - where physicists start wondering about the notion of an observer and how that depends on the ability of the society to provide the means for observation, that's where physics becomes a social science.

See also my posts: The Doomsday Argument and Thoughts on the Anthropic Principle

10:30 am
The used car test - How politicians influence people and how to influence politicians
Adam Wishart, Daniel Finkelstein

A really interesting session though most of the points were only superficially touched. Daniel started by explaining that over the time that capitalism came to spread its reach into more areas of our lives, the scope of advertisement changed. Originally meant to inform the consumer about the product, it is now often used to suggest how a product makes you feel. And this is a tactic also used in politics. (The title refers to this.)

Adam Wishart added an interesting aspect from the scientific side talking about demonstrations against animal tests in the UK, that for a long time have pushed scientists using animal tests into a corner. Interestingly, they let this happen and almost all refused to talk to journalists explaining the importance of their work - probably because they were afraid of becoming a target of sometimes quite aggressive animal right defenders. It has, so Adam explained, been only recently that the scientists managed to organize themselves to communicate their point of view, started speaking out and organize their own demonstrations - a process apparently catalyzed by a quite weird 16 year old guy whose name I've forgotten.

It followed a very interesting discussion on the advertisement of science, and how that influences the public as well as politicians. I'd have much more to say about it, so will probably come back to it in another post.

See also my posts: Fact or Fiction? and Scientists and the Mass Media

11:30 am
LHC, the universe, and all that
Brian Cox, Max Tegmark, Frank Wilczek, Martin Rees

A very entertaining selection of four presentations: about the LHC by Brian Cox (who is really cute, sorry, but this has to be mentioned), Frank Wilczek about supersymmetry and unification (which was well done but left me thoroughly unimpressed, and no, I don't think the LHC will see any SUSY), Max Tegmark about the CMB and 21cm tomography, and eventually Martin Rees about the multiverse, which I however left early to join one of the tours around the Google campus. I didn't learn anything new, but it's always uplifting to hear about the excitement of one's own research field.

See also my posts on: The World's Largest Microscope, Running Couplings in MSSM, and The CMB Power Spectum

Brian's talk was very similar to his TED talk that you can find here.

Google Tour
Basically, we were extensively told how great Google is. I'm thinking of sending in my application. They cut the thorns off the cacti because nerds seem to run into them, have kitchenettes distributed all over the place because allegedly nobody can develop software if more than 100 ft away from food, floors made out of recycled plastic and solar panels on the roof. I'm just wondering if Google has any employees older than me, I haven't seen anybody who seems to have passed the twenties. For more info on Google's carbon footprint, check this website.

3:00 pm
The Marketplace of Ideas or Why the academic system sucks
Sabine Hossenfelder

The previously announced un-session, basically a summary of my posts We have only ourselves to judge on each other and The Marketplace of Ideas. It went very well indeed, though - depressingly - suffered from a certain lack of disagreement. Nobody seems to think that the way funding in academia is distributed to researchers is an optimal use of resources (financial, human and time). Somebody in that discussion (whose name I've forgotten) set up to blame everything on commercial scientific publishers which I think however doesn't tackle the main problem. Robin Hanson made some very interesting remarks. You will hear more about that topic anyway on this blog so I leave it at this for now.

4:00 pm
Something about funding risky research or so, forgot the exact title
Lee Smolin, Max Tegmark, Garrett Lisi

Lee started with telling his tale of the mountain climbers and valley crossers, and that the latter is necessary for progress but often falls through the commonly applied selection criteria. Max continued summarizing his efforts to support unconventional research projects with FQXi and more or less explicitly asked for help with future funding. Garrett then went on briefly introducing his idea of a science hostel (that was continued in the following session). Most interesting remark in that discussion came from a biologist (I believe) who said (I paraphrase), frankly, he thinks we'd rather need people to carefully work out the details than add more quirks. To offer my local impressions: it's all a matter of balance. At PI the valleys are rather crowded places which leaves one longing for a lonely mountain top.

5:00 pm
Science Hostel
Garrett Lisi

Garrett briefly summarized his suggestion of a science hostel which he actually envisions more as a sort of temporary housing service. Roughly speaking the idea is to collect a list of (wealthy) people with spare rooms or residences who might be willing to host scientists or possibly workshops for some amount of time and match them with researchers who need some quiet place - something we all seemed to agree on is necessary but increasingly rare. To me it sounds like a great idea and I wish him best luck.

8:00 pm
Existential Risks and Global Catastrophes
Nick Bostrum, Martin Rees

Nick Bostrum from the Future of Humanity Institute is a very serious man with very serious concerns. He basically lead us through a list of catastrophes that can cause the extinction of the human race. Point three on his list is a 'simulation shutdown', after all, we might be living in a computer simulation and somebody could pull the plug. Though I believe some of the points he makes should be taken more seriously indeed, I wasn't very impressed. He neither said anything particularly insightful nor suggested any way to address the problems.

Martin Rees then basically advertised his book 'Our Final Century', remarkably without saying what it is about. Only interesting point made: the US edition is titled instead 'Our Final Hour', maybe because one can't expect Americans to think ahead for more than one hour.

All together the session was utterly pointless and I wish I had gone elsewhere.


10:30 am
The Reality of Time and the Evolution of Laws
Lee Smolin

That must be the third or fourth time I hear Lee giving that talk and I'm still not entirely sure what he's saying. The talk is getting better though, if I hear it some more times maybe I can figure it out. It was interesting to have Paul Davies in the audience. I seem to agree more with Paul than with Lee, the two made for an interesting combination.

As I mentioned earlier in my post Every Now and Then, I think our experience of there being a present moment is related to our brains being able to store memory (in contrast to elementary constituents of our theories that we typically deal with). You can find some of Lee's arguments on PIRSA 08040011 and 08040013.

(Aside: Apparently some of the people in the audience thought the session to be about the evolution of "ling" what they assumed to be an abbreviation for linguistics. So much about Lee's handwriting.)

11:30 am
Sustainability: Where are we today? Where are we headed? How can we change the course of time?
Steve Goldfinger

Was an interesting summary of the attempt to quantify sustainability by measuring it in land use, and the data that has been collected from various nations. You find most of what Steve said on the websites of the Global Footprint Network, so I'll just point you there.

See also my previous posts: SciFoo Camp - 1st day and SciFoo Camp - 2nd day.

More SciFoo blogging: Check this list



  1. How would the role of "science hostel" be different from that played by e.g. the Aspen Center for Physics (or maybe the Galileo Galilei Institute or the KITP)? Is the idea just that we need more such places? Is there a particular reason to want rich people to be involved, rather than just organizations in nice places to serve as hosts?

  2. Thanks a lot for your summary, it was absolutely excellent.

    I'm afraid it didn't seem particularly exciting. The same old people with their pet theories and topics (yourself excluded, of course). It would have been nice to have something a bit more exciting and wild, especially seeing it's at Google.

    For example, it would have been nice to get such clever people talking about other subjects, maybe getting them to answer something like the Edge's Dangerous Ideas instead of going over their own theories yet again. I feel the whole event should have been crazier and less restrained. I like creative chaos!

  3. Hey, at least PZ Meyers wasn't there this year.

    One of the participants remarked - completely without any intentional sarcasm - where physicists start wondering about the notion of an observer and how that depends on the ability of the society to provide the means for observation, that's where physics becomes a social science.

    When I first hit on my interpretation that there was some kind of "life-principle" at work, it was made from the simple, direct, naive observation that carbon-based life is highly efficient at disseminating energy without wasting too much effort doing it, i.e., we maximize work. Much later, I found out that there were a few others, (James Kay, Eric Schneider, Dorion Sagan, and Scott Sampson), who had made a similar observation, so I knew at the very least that I wasn't cracked in the head all by myself.

    I figured that it was just a local thing, as I didn't even know that there was some crazy cosmological justification for it, but I was intrigued when I found out, because this makes sense in context with the "goal" of an expanding universe that is dominated by the second law of thermodynamics.

    Never once did the idea for a "plethora" of possibilities cross my mind because it is quite obvious from the above that the AP must be an energy conservation law, so "god" didn't have a "choice".

    Never have I been so disgusted as I was to find these lame unphysical ideas about of "quantum observers", because observation is simply necessary to the function that enables us to develop the technology that is required to further the efficiency of our contribution to the process, PER the second law of thermodynamics in a flat expanding universe.

    I also note that Paul Davies doesn't seem to know how to apply the precariously "eco-balanced" conditions that are inherent to the "Goldilocks Enigma" to make testable predictions, but that's probably because he lets cutting-edge theorists speculate him right out of the observed universe, which is all that the AP is really about.

    It's no wonder that nobody likes the AP, but there's no excuse for willful ignorance in science either... as noted by B. Carter, who correctly called it, "anticentrist dogma".

    The Real Anthropic Principle

  4. Oh, I see Jennifer Rohn's blog posting made it all sound a lot crazier - good.

  5. If a theoretical physicist didn't quite understand Lee's presentation on The Reality of Time, then I guess I don't have to feel bad.

    Hell, I'm merely a comedian. I had to step out early.

    Bee, sorry we didn't actually meet at SciFoo, but we did have some near misses.

  6. The Hostel sounds like a perfect set for a Horror movie. Garrett Lisi could play the role of the weird receptionist. Ha, Ha, Ha!

  7. Hi Andrew,

    I was about to say, go read what other sessions there were since my post only captures roughly 1/12th or so, but I see you already did. Also, it is really stimulating to get feedback from a somewhat other than usual audience on the usual talks. SciFoo was really a nice mix of people, sorry if I'm not crazy enough for you. I've had a lot of interesting discussions that however I don't want to reproduce here (I would find it odd myself to read on a blog something I'd have considered private communication.) Best,


    PS: Btw, I ended up in the anthropic session by accident. First session first morning, I was looking for a different room.

  8. Hi Anonymous,

    I don't know, it's not my idea. It seems to me it would be a more flexible solution and also one that strengthens the scientist/public relation. Further, a place where many people from the same field gather isn't a getaway either. Best,


  9. Something about funding risky research or so, forgot the exact title
    Lee Smolin, Max Tegmark, Garrett Lisi

    They talk big and it ends there. Every composition Equivalence Test has nulled, including binary black holes, binary pulsars, and a pulsar-normal star combo. Pulsars have gigagauss magnetic fields.

    A parity Eötvös experiment costs no more than a dreary composition run: left-handed vs. right-handed single crystal cultured alpha-quartz solid sphere test masses (no direction bias). No massed sector Equivalence Principle parity test has ever nulled. RISKY!

    If the vacuum has a chiral pseudoscalar background in the massed sector, shouldn't theorists be told? Somebody should look.

  10. Hi Comedian,

    Yes, too bad we didn't meet, hopefully some other time, I could need some advice on how not to be mistaken for being serious if I'm making a joke. I think Lee likes to be confusing. I find it sometimes hard to tell though who of us is confused. If it wasn't the case that there had been various instances where I understood with months delay what he'd been saying all the time I would probably just conclude his time philosophy is nonsense. But who knows? I don't. Anyway, hopefully we'll run into each other again before the Poincare recurrence time. Best,


  11. Hi Bee,

    “Only interesting point made: the US edition is titled instead 'Our Final Hour', maybe because one can't expect Americans to think ahead for more than one hour.”

    This is an interesting hypothesis; that is ones concept of what constitutes being the relevant future is proportional to your attention span. I wonder if this edition of the book is also shorter or even in point form. You know of course Rees has been knighted thus actually making him Sir Rees. Being a Dali fan I’ve often wondered if they would knight someone whose last name was Real :-) Actually that’s an appropriate thought considering where you’ve been for the last few days.



  12. Hi Bee,

    thanks for summarizing the sessions. I think you are right the specialization could be really a problem. I am working on my Ph.D. thesis and I think it will be soon finished (some months or so). However in order to get a Postdoc position I think I should use your ideas and follow not economic strategies. When I look back in my life, when I followed my intuition, everything has been turned out fine.

    Kind regards

    Kay zum Felde

  13. Bee: "Frank Wilczek about supersymmetry and unification (which was well done but left me thoroughly unimpressed, and no, I don't think the LHC will see any SUSY)"
    Hi Bee,
    Would you be willing to bet, say, $1000 that the LHC will not discover superpartners? Just curious to see how strong your conviction is.

  14. It's just no fun to bet with an anonymous gambler when rubbing their nose in it is far more important than the money.

  15. Hi Anonymous,

    a) I don't bet for money.
    b) And certainly not with anonymous commenters on my blog.
    c) I couldn't afford $1000
    d) If I could I'd book a flight to visit my husband



  16. Hi Kay,

    Thanks for your comment. I strongly encourage you to do so. I can echo the same for myself, if I've been following my intuitions things worked fine. Not always as expected, but you know what they say "Experience is what you get when you were expecting something else" ;-)
    Good luck with everything,


  17. No Higgs, no SUSY, no compactified dimensions. Their physical theory is strictly mathematics. The LHC will be sterile.

    Observables are symmetry breakings. On Christmas Day 1956 physics was elegantly symmetric C,P,T. By New Year's Day 1957 Yang and Lee had looked at what others had "proven". The Weak interaction is chiral.

    The elegant vacuum is isotropic in the massed sector. Precedent supports chirality, opening a testable loophole in the elevator Gedankenexperiment as a parity Eötvös experiment (pdf). Somebody should look.

  18. re:science hostel

    Instead of a hippy, a science surfer?:)

    Jack Kerouac

    For the next six years, Kerouac wrote constantly. Building upon previous drafts tentatively titled "The Beat Generation" and "Gone on the Road," Kerouac wrote what is now known as On the Road in April of 1951 while living at 454 West 20th Street in Manhattan with his second wife, Joan Haverty.[10] The book was largely autobiographical and describes Kerouac's road-trip adventures across the United States and Mexico with Neal Cassady in the late-40's, as well his relationships with other Beat writers and friends.

    A hostel in my day was a place that one could stop over "for free," while thumbing a ride from city to city. A poor man's trip to see the world.

    So the idea then here is to provide
    a place where science can be allowed it's ingenuity in an environment that is productive?

    Sounds like a Market Place of Ideas?:)


  19. uh anthropic principle sounds so hochstaplerish . although there seems to be a lot about physics than known today, for sure.

    have you seen


  20. Hmm..interesting.

    Looks like the "Academia sucks" data-point is stimulating some Convergent Evolution amongst various researchers. I myself am looking to start an infrastructure to do Interdisciplinary Science, & registered a domain (& also Kea wants to start a Category Theory Inst, based in New Zealand, Louise is looking for something in Hawaii, G. Lisi is looking for a network of hostels as scenic locations (CA, NV, Hawaii). At the SIGGRAPH 2008 conference, I was scouting out contacts to realize my vision for a network of satellite R&D locations. It could just make Kea/Louise/Garrett vision into reality.

    I ran into a guy from DRI, Desert Research Inst. It's a division of the University of Nevada, & researchers go out & get grants (227 million from 1999 to 2006). It's out of Reno/NV, where Garrett was hanging out recently!! I like the Distributed Architecture concept, where there is NO centralized location. Think of ant society, where there is a network of colonies. This concept was the basis for Caltech's CORO robotics group (no longer exists), but other groups have followed. Like the Swarm Intelligence Group in Switzerland.

    So, instead of Kea, Louise, Garret, & me trying to do *separate" R&D institutes (re-inventing the wheel, so to say), just bring everyone's R&D inst under ONE UMBRELLA. Use the insect model..the "swarm". I was watching a NOVA episode, which claimed that insects were the DOMINANT life form on Earth..based on mass. I.e., the collective effect of a Distributed Architecture of colonies beat out the centralized architecture of mammals. Man, that would dovetail into Bee's principle that "Academia sucks" (Kea also has a strong anti-establishment bent). An emulation of a dominant life-form insect model, could conceivably beat out Academia in terms of research.

    I ran into some key contacts, who have been involved with Infrastructure Building:

    1) he has sat on NSF review panels, & himself was involved with Infrastructure creation (33 million funded)

    2) mathematician from Australia, who is trying to help Kea
    Translational leader, working at a research Inst in Ireland

    3) ex Johns Hopkins professor, who is an active entrepeneur in Silicon Valley

    I attended the course "Art of Grant Writing", where 2 of the speakers (Math PhD & Colorado School of Mines prof) are at NSF. They stressed the importance of something "concrete" (blue sky ideas don't get funded, typically). I JUST FOUND the "concrete application", that will be the foundation for my "blue sky" concept of Interdisciplinary Science. It's Alternative Energy, Green Tech, etc (this is something Bee would be interested in, since she makes claim to be a tree-hugger). This area is HOT, because of all the (incorrect) hype about Global Warming. Add Tesla Motors & their Roadster (founded by my ex-grad school officemate M. Eberhard, who lives only a few miles from Caltech & myself), which sufferred through engineering problems (AC Induction motor instantaneous torque curve blowing up transmissions left & right), this is a perfect example of why an Interdisciplinary R&D entity is required to pro-actively look for challenge problems for Alternative Energy companies. EV/electric vehicles, Hydrogen cars, Solar Power, etc.

    I'm pretty excited about that last week turn of events, so now I have to wrap up finalizing the idea (need another pass amongst various parties). Then, get to proposal writing!! Fiscal 2009 proposals have to be in by Oct, usually by Sept to be an early bird. Anyone who likes the idea & wants "in" please email me (click thru above link)

  21. Forgot to put in a link for my blog coverage for SIGGRAPH 2008:

    SIGGRAPH 2008 blog coverage

    SIGGRAPH 2008 Flickr blog

    Bee, I met many of the same people you did. PIXAR staff (incl top brass: Ed Catmull/PIXAR head & President of Disney Animation, whose background is Physics & Computer Science), many Disney Animation staff (1 is a woman with Design & Engineering background). Disney & PIXAR (former competitors) merged 2.5 yrs ago, Steve Jobs/Apple (PIXAR owner) is now on the BoD/Board of Directors of Disney. Disney is just down the road from Caltech (near where I live).

    Ed Catmull autograph session

    Awards, Ed Catmull talk on infrastructure building @PIXAR

    My autographed copy:
    "To Infinity and Beyond!", the story of PIXAR Animation Studios

    Bee (& others), you should get this book to study. It's a profile of the trials/tribulations of infrastructure startup. They deal with crises well, i.e. THEY FIGURED IT OUT. They didn't screw up (like Academia) & bomb out.

    PIXAR used creativity to build a friendly work environment:

    Science & Strategy

    Incredible: The Man [ Ed Catmull ] Who Built Pixar's
    Innovation Machine

    I believe the U.S. Navy sent representatives to PIXAR, to figure out why their Infrastructure was so efficient. This would dovetail into solutions based on "Academia sucks": what to do (& what not to do)

  22. Forgot to put a link to the video of Ed Catmull's talk on building PIXAR:

    Ed Catmull talk
    [ the above is required viewing for anyone out there (Kea, Louise, Garrett, myself) who want to build their own Institute ]

    He talked about hiring, based on acquiring Good Ideas VS Good People. He emphasized the latter in his approach. I agree, the same thing was said by military experts in describing "soft issues" (personnel). He said that crises were INEVITABLE, but that handling crisis ("crisis management") was the key.

    "Life is 20% what happens to you, 80% how you respond to it"
    -- a wise man once said

    I also met up with Google people, like my UIUC classmate (he's Class of '77, I'm Class of '78) Ken Turkowski, who led the QTVR group at Apple. He now works on Google Earth, & is a Computer Graphics pioneer:

    Ken Turkowski/Google Earth

    Other Google pictures at:


    I just got a Treo 800w, which has integrated GPS. It runs the Google Maps cellphone app, which tracks you LIVE on Google. You can type in a location ("McDonalds bad fast food") in Live Search, & based on current GPS location, will give you nearest McDonalds (bad food) & directions there (bad move).

    BTW, Google does hire people based on Talent..not just for tasks. Bee, so if you want to work for Google..they may hire you. That would satisfy your California preference, & may be a nice change of pace.

    Here is an example of how a Physics PhD (MIT) transitioned to Computer Science:

    A. Hanson's webpage

    [ I met him, & he was talking to another researcher about how to deal with space-time in Computer Graphics. They were talking about a slice in higher-dimensional space, 5D? ]

    He is leveraging the rich field of Computer Graphics, to play in Math/Physics. You recently queried about a simulation of the N-body problem. Well, Computer Graphics is basically Simulation of light & physics (computational models). Scientific Visualization. Maybe Google would take on a physicist like yourself, to develop Scientific Visualization techniques for their scientific/physics clients (to visualize LQG, etc). Maybe you have Google in your future.


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