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.
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
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
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.
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.
The Marketplace of Ideas or Why the academic system sucks
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Reality of Time and the Evolution of Laws
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.)
Sustainability: Where are we today? Where are we headed? How can we change the course of time?
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