We just arrived in Copenhagen after a 2-day trip on the National Geographic Explorer, a medium sized cruise ship, along Norway’s coast. On board were about 130 scientists and a couple of spouses in different sizes, plus an incredibly efficient, friendly, and competent crew that didn’t mind having nosy physicists hanging around on the bridge.
The 2011 FQXi conference turns out to be very different from the previous one (2009 on the Azores), and that not only thanks to the unique bonding experience of shared sea-sickness. As Sean Carroll mentioned the other day, during the organization of this conference on the nature of time, the FQXi folks were confronted with an application for a similar event with a similar topic and so they decided to join forces. As a result, this conference is larger and much more interdisciplinary than the previous one. Besides the physicists and philosophers, there are neurobiologists, biologists and psychologists, and a selection of guys interested in artificial intelligence from one or the other perspective, as well as a crew with cameras that are here for PBS I am told.
Among the physicists, the usual suspects are Max Tegmark and Anthony Aguirre, Paul Davies, George Ellis, David Albert, Garrett Lisi, Fotini Markopoulou, Julian Barbour, and Scott Aaronson. But there’s also Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute, Jaan Tallinn, one of the developers of Skype, and David Eagleman the possibilian, just to mention a few. Also around are George Musser from Scientific American and Zeeya Merali who is blogging for FQXi here. There’s a list of alleged attendees here, though some of them I haven’t seen so far.
It is an interesting mix of people. I do enjoy interdisciplinary events a lot because there is always some cool research to learn about that I didn’t know of before. I have however grown skeptic about the benefits of interdisciplinarity when it comes to pushing forward on a particular problem. Take a topic such as free will or the origin of our impression of “now” that might or might not be an illusion. Yes, neurobiologists and psychologists have something to say about that. But they don’t in fact mean the same as physicists and I am not sure that, for example, the question how we achieve to remember the past and imagine the future, or fail to distinguish between true and false memory has any relevance for physicists trying to figure out the relevance of the past hypothesis, the consistency of alternatives to the block universe, or the role of observers in the multiverse. In fact, you already have people talking past each other within one discipline: If you ask three physicists what they mean with “free will” you’ll get four different answers. And after you’ve spent a significant amount of time figuring out what they mean to begin with there isn’t much left they have to say to each other.
That’s the downside of mixing academics – in my experience it does not add depth. Interdisciplinary exchange however adds breadth. Talking to somebody who has addressed a question for a completely different reason and with completely different methods helps one look at it from a different point of view, opening new ways forward. In my opinion though the largest benefit of events like this conference comes from just getting together a group of interesting and intelligent people who make an effort to listen to and complement each other. After some years at PI and NORDITA I’ve pretty much come to take for granted having plenty of folks at my disposal to talk to should I feel like it, but after the baby break I appreciate the opportunity for such exchange much more.
The idea with putting us on a ship was clearly to get us off the Internet for some while. I personally don’t have the impression people on the conferences I usually go make obsessive use of the internet, but evidently some need to have an evil third party as an excuse for not being available at least for a few days. I don’t find it such a great idea to punish all of us because a few guys can’t live without their newsfeed. I wasn’t the only one with family at home who would have appreciated at least a phone. (For an appropriate price that is. If you really, really had to you could have paid for an internet connection at $10 per kB or something like that.)
These are some first impressions. If I've had some time to process what I've heard and learned I might summarize some of the main questions that were discussed. But now (whatever that might be) I have to locate my baggage which I've last seen this morning vanishing into a bus somewhere.