All the talks on the conference were recorded and they should be on YouTube sooner or later. Stefan also just told me that the talks from the 2009 FQXi conference are on YouTube now. (My talk is here. Beware, despite the title, I didn’t actually speak on Pheno QG. Also, I can’t for the hell of it recall what that thing is I’m wearing.) Anyways, here is what I found on my notepad upon return, so you can decide what recording you might want to watch:
- Mike Russell gave a very interesting talk on the origin of life or at least its molecular ancestors. He explained the conditions on our home planet 2 billion years ago and the chemical reactions he believes must have taken place back then. He claims that under these circumstances, it was almost certain that life would originate. With that he means a molecule very similar to ADP, the most important cellular energy source, is very easy to form under certain conditions that he claims were present in the environment. From there on, he says, it’s only a small step to protein synthesis, RNA and DNA and they are trying to “re-create” life in the lab.
Chemical reactions flew by a little too fast on Russell’s slides, and it’s totally not my field, so I have no clue if what Russell says is plausible. Especially I don’t know how sure we really can be the environment was as he envisions. In any case, I took away the message that the molecular origins of life might not be difficult to create in the right environment. Somewhat disturbingly, in the question session he said he has trouble getting his work funded.
- Kathleen McDermott, a psychologist from Washington University, reports the results of several studies in which they were trying to find out which brain regions are involved in recalling memory and imagining the future. Interestingly enough, in all brain regions they looked at, they found no difference in activity in between people recalling an event in the past and envisioning one in the future.
- David Eagleman gave a very engaging talk about how our brains slice time and process information without confusing causality. The difficulty is that the time which different sensory inputs needs to reach your brain differs by the type and location of input, and also the time needed for processing that might differ from one part of the brain to the next. I learned for example that the processing of auditory information is faster than that of visual information. So what your brain does to sort out the mess is that it waits till all information has arrived, then presents you with the result and calls it “right now,” just that at this point it might be something like 100ms in the past actually.
Even more interesting is that your brain, well trained by evolution, goes to lengths to correct for mismatches. Eagleman told us for example that in the early days of TV broadcast, producers were worried that they wouldn’t be able to send audio and video sufficiently synchronized. Yet it turned out, that up to 20ms or so your brain erases a mismatch between audio and video. If it gets larger, all of a sudden you’ll notice it.
Eagleman told us about several experiments they’ve made, but this one I found the most interesting: They let people push a button that would turn on a light. Then they delayed the light signal by some small amount of time 50ms or so past pushing the button (I might recall the numbers wrong, but the order of magnitude should be okay). People don’t notice any delay because, so the explanation, the brain levels it out. Now they insert one signal that comes without delay. What happens? People think the light went on before they even pushed the button and, since the causality doesn’t make sense, claim it wasn’t them! (Can you write an app for that?) Eagleman says that the brains ability to maintain temporal order, or failure to do so, might be a possible root of schizophrenia (roughly: you talk to yourself but get the time order wrong, so you believe somebody else is talking) and they’re doing some studies on that.
- From Simon Saunders talk I took away the following quotation from a poem by Henry Austin Dobson on “The Paradox of Time:”
- “Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go;
Or else, were this not so,
What need to chain the hours,
For Youth were always ours?
Time goes, you say?- ah no”
- Malcom MacIver, who blogs at Discover, studies electric fish. If that makes you yawn, you should listen to his talk, because it is quite amazing how the electric fish have optimized their energy needs. MacIver also puts forward the thesis that the development of consciousness is tied to life getting out of water simply because in air one can see farther and thus arises the need for ahead planning. In a courageous extrapolation of that, he claims that our problem as a species on this planet is that we can’t “see” the problems in other parts of the world (e.g. starving children) and thus fail to properly react to them. I think that’s an oversimplification and I’m not even sure that is the main part of the problem, but it’s certainly an interesting thesis to think about. He has a 3 part series on posts about this here: Part I, Part II, Part III.
- Henry Roediger from the Memory Lab at Washington University explained us, disturbingly enough, that there is in general no correlation between the accuracy of a memory and the confidence in it. For example, shown a list of 16 words with a similar theme (bed, tired, alarm clock, etc) 60% of people (or so, again: I might mess up the numbers) will “recall” the word “sleep” with high confidence though it was not on the list. A true scientist, he is trying to figure out under which circumstances there is a good correlation and what this means for the legal process.
- Alex Holcombe told us about his project evidencechart.com, a tool to collect and rate pro and con arguments on a hypothesis. I think this can be very useful, though more so in fields where there actually is some evidence to rate on.
Scott Aaronson's talk on free will deserves a special mentioning, but I found it impossible to summarize. I recommend you just watch the video when it comes out.