Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Future of the Conference

As you know, I am here at Perimeter Institute for the upcoming workshop on the Laws of Nature: Their Nature and Knowability. Every time I lift my bag on a scale at a check-in counter I am wondering if there will come a time when, instead of stepping on a plane, we will meet in cyberspace.

The Past

The classical conference in academia is still omnipresent. You go, you sit and listen to a dozen talks a day, you smalltalk over coffee and cheap cookies and try to get to know some people at the "social event," typically a reception with buffet or a conference dinner. Also typical is that the average participants pays a horrendously high fee that covers the VIP guests airfare and four star hotel. But that's okay because most of the participants have a travel grant for exactly this purpose.

That might sound a bit dull, and it frankly sometimes is, but there are a lot of good reasons both to organize and go to a conference.

On the participant's side: Most notably, conferences are useful to obtain or keep an overview on the research going on in one's field. An overview both on the what and on the who. It is possible to do that by other means, but a conference is an especially efficient way to do it, in particular if you're a newcomer. In contrast to reading a review, you can go and talk to the people who work on similar stuff like you and face-to-face communication is still the best way to exchange information. You might learn about some unfinished work and find a new collaborator. You might get to hear a talk by some of the more well-known people in the field that might be unlikely to pass by your own institution. And last but not least, you have the opportunity to communicate your own research, get feedback and advice.

On the organizer's side: Organizing a conference takes a lot of work and time. One doesn't make money with a scientific conference - in fact the first steps will be trying to find sponsors. Reasons for organizing a conference are most notably to advance the research in one's own field. It's to bring together and support the community, to spread ideas, to foster the formation of collaborations. Conferences are also frequently used to advertise the institution where they take place, which most often is one of the main sponsors. As an organizer one often has, to some extend, the possibility to select speakers that one is interested in hearing or meeting. And then there is the communication of the research field's relevance beyond the own community. Many conferences will have a public lecture and will have some media coverage, at least in the news magazine of the university where it takes place.

There are a few variations to the conference scheme. A workshop for example will typically have fewer participants and fewer talks, and these talks will be more specialized and leave more room for discussion. The large conferences will often separate talks into plenary talks and parallel session. Sometimes they will dump people into a poster session.

The Present

During the last years, with the spread of social networking tools and the continuing improvements in information technologies, one could start to see some modifications of the standard scheme. To begin with, it is nowadays possible to let a speaker deliver a talk by video link and it is similarly possible to let people participate by streaming video. I have been to a few conferences were talks were given by video and they typically are not very well attended. I'm not entirely sure why. It's like people think "Oh, he wont really be here." Or maybe it's that, not so surprisingly, these talks typically imply a lot of technical fiddling and are fault-prone. That however will improve the more often it happens.

Another quite obvious change that is now so common one easily takes it for granted, is that most conferences have the slides of talks online and in many cases even a recording. This is so omnipresent that indeed most conferences no longer publish proceedings. I find this extremely useful because I don't have to take notes and write down a reference on the speaker's slide. I can just go and look it up later.

Then there are the changes in format. I wrote previously that I was at the SciBar Camp in Toronto and later at the SciFoo Camp in California. In this case the schedule is not set before the start of the meeting, but assembled by self-organization and participant's interests upon arrival which is greatly aided if the participants had in advance a possibility to exchange their interests online. This spontaneous self-assembly has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that it's a more flexible format that expresses the participants' rather than the organizers' interests, is more lively and interactive. Disadvantage is that most of the sessions will be pretty much unprepared. Since I actually prefer listening to thought-through arguments instead of improvised babble, I am not too much in favor of this mode of organization. I think that for scientific purposes, a combination of both, the old-fashioned scheduled talks and some more flexible sessions would be more suitable.

And then of course there is the use of social networking tools, like Twitter, Friendfeed and blogging or just setting up a networking site specifically dedicated to the event. Whether or not that works well depends crucially on how many people make use of it. But if it works well, this can serve a lot of purposes. One is clearly the communication to the public. But besides this it also improves the exchange between the participants. In particular if you are at a large conference you might not actually know who is interested in similar topics like you or who you might want to talk to in the coffee break. If a conference wants to make good use of Web2.0 tools first thing they should do is to aggregate the participants' feeds. It is somewhat ironic, but you might not actually know that the person sitting next to you is writing a blog you read frequently. And installations like a Tweetwall for example (a screen displaying tweets by participants, see picture) add a completely new layer to the discussions that can take place at a meeting and can greatly improve information exchange and facilitate networking.

It is interesting to see how more and more conference organizers are making use of these possibilities. It depends of course a lot on the technical support that they have. For example I read the other day on Resonaances that the International Conference on High Energy Physics 2010 has launched an official blog and recruited some bloggers to cover the event. How cool is that? One should add that of course these things have been done since years in some communities that are especially dedicated to advancing these changes in networking, blogging, outreach and information technology. And Perimeter Institute's outreach efforts have been playing around with all these possibilities since years, for example with the recent Quantum2Cosmos Festival. Point I'm trying to make is that the use of these tools is now slowly spreading and becoming more common.

The Future?

So what's next? NatureNetworks organizes conferences that are life-streamed to Second Life. Will this become the conference of the future? I think it is very well possible. I don't think it is very likely that conferences will become entirely decoupled from physical reality in the sense that we exclusively meet online. But it will become increasingly more common to attend a "real" conference "virtually" if one cannot be there in person for one or the other reason, may that be lack of funding or illness.

I also think that conferences will obtain several more virtual layers in the soon future. For example, I imagine that you go to a talk and while you are there can "log in" to the respective website, and so could people who are not physically there but following online. You could then for example skip back and forth in the slides as you wish or ask your colleague in the second row what he thinks about what the speaker just said. I think that this happens to some extend today by people sending emails, but it could become much better aggregated. I am not sure however that such a complex environment as SecondLife is necessary for these purposes. Though it has of course the advantage that the technology is already in place.

As to the increased flexibility in format. There is a quite obvious hurdle to having an academic conference that has not a program online a month ahead and neatly scheduled speakers: Many people can only justify their participation and receive a reimbursement for their expenses when they are giving a talk. This is a typical example where requiring "accountability" can be misguided (see also) and hinders improvements. However, I think that this problem will resolve by itself once funding agencies notice that there are other means to document one's participation in an event than being listed on the program. Basically, all they really want to know is that you didn't just spend the week on the beach at their expenses. But taking part in online discussions or blogging can serve a similar purpose.


Real change is happening and I think we'll see more of it!


  1. Air travel is a major, major source of pollution. The actual figures are quite shocking.

    Advances in communication technology go a long way to making it possible to accomplish most scientific and business tasks online.

    I would not advocate scrapping in-person meetings and conferences totally, but I think we need to ask ourselves if the planet, science and business interests might be better served by more efficient means of communication.

  2. Yes, I agree. Thing is however that while the infrastructure for air travel is already in place, the corresponding infrastructure for similarly efficient alternative virtual meetings is just in its beginning.

  3. Hi Bee,

    A nice piece on what in the past, present and perhaps in the future may constitute to be a conference. I’m particularly intrigued where you imagine as to where thismay be going in relation to what immerging technology can provide. In such respect I’m torn as being one of those people who find it enjoyable to be with others when ideas are being put forward and exchanged, as it lending one the sense, even if only primarily being an observer, you are a part of it all.

    On the other hand, as I discovered with the Quantum2Cosmos Festival which you mentioned here, the online experience was it many ways richer then what is generally had when you attend such an event in person. First I found the online moderators they chose as adding a useful and welcomed element to each talk, as well as those other observers that logged in. The other thing I found it improved, at least in the case of a public event, is it increased the quality of questions asked of the speakers at the end of the lecture and the chance that your own might be chosen to actually be addressed.

    However, even without such opportunity I would certainly like some of the professional aimed conferences, such as the one you are now attending, to be able to be taken in online by any who chose; as I think there might be others out there that would come away feeling enriched similarly by the experience. More generally I consider such format and access changes in coming to have realized what I understand to be your own idea what things are required to comprise as the beginnings of a brave new world. That’s simply to point out that expansion of access and transparency serves more than to be a means to assure the conduct of individuals and groups, yet more importantly to their potential for each improving in quality..



  4. I have been to a few conferences were talks were given by video and they typically are not very well attended. I'm not entirely sure why.

    I think there is that human factor that is difficult to replace. Stating that, I don't mind video lectures and I think it's a reasonable and effective way of delivering a lecture.

    I like what PI has done with PIRSA. Being able to watch all the conferences and talks at ones own leisure is excellent. You do lose that interactivity, but you are able to re-watch portions again and again. I'd imagine the infrastructure they've put in place with the video cameras and getting their stuff online has taught them a lot from, presumably, very little. I think this ties nicely to the point you make Bee about no infrastructure. PI is the first institute I am aware of (I'd be happy to be proved wrong) that records all the goings-on. It has demonstrated that it is possible to do so and given that it works quite well, has laid some of the groundwork for other institutions to follow suit.

    I think technological advances will make conferences different, but I still cannot imagine it replacing them entirely. There is something to be said about a group of people in a room being able to interact and bounce ideas off each other. Being able to run up a blackboard and jot down some equations just cannot be replaced with digital technology.

    By the way Bee, will you be around Monday? I'm meeting with my supervisors at PI and I'd like to drop by and say hello.

  5. Hi Phil,

    It is interesting that you say the online experience was indeed richer than being there in person would have been. It hadn't occurred to me before because I mostly experience the IT aspects of conferences as adding to the actual event, but it makes a lot of sense actually. In particular at a large conference, smart aggregation, editing, filtering and organization can probably significantly enhance the experience (much like, say, a good editor can improve a collection of essays). Best,


  6. Hi Luke,

    Indeed, PIRSA is a great achievement. At some point there were plans to offer this archive for others to upload their talks too, basically to provide the infrastructure, have a common website and a common format. Do you know whatever happened to these plans? Btw, not all talks at PI are recorded. To begin with, it happens occasionally that a speaker doesn't want to be recorded for one or the other reason. But some of the group seminars and discussions are not recorded either. I think that's good actually, one does need some "secure space" if you know what I mean. But yes, I have come to greatly appreciate that one could rely on seminars to be recorded. It is very useful, in particular when one frequently travels and want to keep track of what's going on. Sadly, NORDITA is lagging years behind with their technology, both the soft and hardware. They do record some seminars, but it's very spotty and disorganized.

    Yes, I'm around Monday (and the rest of the week). Please send me an email (hossi at nordita dot org) to set up a time. Best,


  7. Hi Bee,

    Don’t take it that I still wouldn’t prefer to have the in person exposure to the speaker(s) or the ability to address my questions directly, as I certainly would. However, I also realize the practical side of things, as the numbers of us far exceed the numbers of researchers. However at least with the online experience ones level of interest and knowledge of the subject can find balance with those of the researchers and even at times contribute somewhat in terms of the overall dialogue, for those that are less informed, studied or interested.

    I can’t tell you how frustrated I’ve become at public lectures, when they randomly take questions from the audience, only to often have those chosen to ask questions that don’t even relate to the lectures subject or serves as only being an opportunity for them to expound on their own wild speculations. What then is afforded by way of the online experience helps to correct for such problems, just as this blog does on many occasions.



  8. Bee,

    I don't know the inner works of PIRSA but that sounds interesting. I'd imagine it either got left off the table for logistic reasons or they forgot. Although thinking about it, it might be an issue of quality they are looking for.

    I am well aware that some talks at PI are not recorded for whatever reasons, however I've noticed it's view and far between. Although I wanted to listen to the PIXAR guy talk but it wasn't recorded, for copyright reasons I imagine. "Secure space" is definitely important and I understand what you mean.

    Too bad about NORDITA. Although I can't imagine why they are making excuses in this day and age. A good quality video camera is fairly cheap and storage space is hardly an issue these days. Hire an undergrad to record and you're done. I know here at UWaterloo, the computer science club is able to record talks with a cheap video camera and upload them for all to see with minimal effort. Given a larger budget I can't see any reason why any institute doesn't do this. I hope to see this crop up more since the technology is just getting cheaper and cheaper. One of my favourite things about PIRSA is the recorded lectures for PSI. A great resource for any student of physics. I'm always surprised to hear that more people don't know aobut it.

  9. Hi Luke,

    Yes, too bad the talk by Rob Cook wasn't recorded. Luckily, I was there :-) It might have been a technical glitch. Some of the talks on my conference weren't recorded either because of one or the other problem. (My own talk eg has an audio bug, you can see me but hardly hear what I'm saying, apparently an issue with the echo cancellation.)

    About NORDITA: I think you fail to acknowledge what an enormous investment, both in terms of personnel and money, PI has made with their regular, high quality recording and the equipment of the seminar rooms. Not all institutions sit on an endowment of some hundred million dollars. If you have to turn around every dollar before you spend it you better think carefully what is really necessary. But either way, I know things are on the way it's more a matter of time and organization at this point. Best,


  10. Bee,

    Very true about PI having money. Of course they have the nice automated (but loud!) cameras in the Bob room and the audience miked. But you don't need to have that fancy technology. You can get a high quality camcorder for less then $1000. In addition, if you don't want to host the things on your own website, there is always Youtube or other video sharing sites. One doesn't need to make a huge investment. As you said, it's just a matter of time before a few extra dollars turns around and institutes are able to do this.

    As for the Robert Cook talk, I was going to go but either forgot and got distracted with something else. I was none to happy about that being a huge Pixar fan. Oh well.

  11. I'm employed by a software company that has employees in India, and we German guys are supposed to outsource as many tasks to them as possible (for obvious reasons).
    Since travelling is expensive (ecological aspects don't enter the discussion, I presume), the common sense is to do as much communication as possible online.

    One exception for this rule is when the team members don't know each other personally: A common experience is that humans tend coorporate much better if they have met in person. So most Germans get to travel to India at least once and some of the Indians get to travel to Germany, which is a very interesting experience for both sides, of course: The first thing that our Indian collegues notice in Germany is that the streets are all empty (they live and work in Mumbay).

  12. Bee,

    I now appreciate your comment about NORDITA and lack of funding. I now realise that recording seminars is not a priority.

  13. A merge between in-person meeting, videoconferencing, and 2nd Life will probably occur when we have real 3-D Holography. Anyone have a guess when that will be?

    Until then, the pressure to do everything virtually will increase, as Tim vB said, and also because the newest generation is more comfortable working there. 1995 was the year more than half of Americans were connected to the internet, even if it was dial-up and the portal was AOL, you have to start somewhere.

    So anyone born here in 1991 (the year I saw the first cell phone in use, by a rich lady, and it was the size of a walkie-talkie), age 19 this year, or since will not recall a time when we weren't wired. In 2020 the oldest of them will be 29, in 2030, 39, and in 2040, 49, and therefore in a significant position to change organizations. In that year, I guess, the in-person stuff will probably begin to become increasingly rare.

    I'm glad I won't live to see that. In-person communication is much more satisfying, and as Tim Vb alluded to to, it's much easier to say no over the phone than in-person. Face time is the best time, but I can see it eventually going away.

  14. "merge between in-person meeting, videoconferencing, and 2nd Life will probably occur when we have real 3-D Holography. Anyone have a guess when that will be?"

    My guess is just after "QFT solves the energy crisis" and pigs evolve wings.

    Beam me to a brighter future, Scotty.

  15. It shouldn't be hard to bio-engineer pigs with wings the way biology is rapidly evolving. (Chickens have wings ... for what purpose?) Heck, Drama departments across the world could do that tomorrow, although it'd be fake and not technically: evolution.

    QFT will definitely solve the World's Energy crisis (Lubos and ExxonMobil: WHAT energy crisis?). Just encourage all young people to be Theoreticians, and work from home. Obama will find/print the money. Since they won't have to drive anywhere to do their job, they'll lose less gasoline. Problem solved.

    They may wish to begin the QFT journey by losing the whole crappy word problem stuff for 4th graders. Replace it will Algebra, Trig/Geometry for 5th Graders, Calc 1 (derivatives) for 6th graders and Calc I (integration) to 7th graders. By graduation time they should be doing scattering diagrams and debating which interpretation of quantum mechanics is the worst one.

    Problem is, where will the teachers of these subjects come from? Oh right, the internet. Who needs teachers anymore? Other than teachers union officials?

  16. "QFT will definitely solve the World's Energy crisis (Lubos and ExxonMobil: WHAT energy crisis?)."

    Right! Sort of like a Lube Job?

    Why mess with physical realty when abstract postmodern Platonism is so much easier and fun?

  17. A REAL "Lube job" as you put it is if ExxonMobil isn't sending Lubos a big fat paycheck every month for saying what he says at his blog. He pretty much writes their "take" on pollution, climate, change etc. Lubos would be all kinds of ignorant if he's not tapping into that. Lubos is the Science equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Rupert Murdoch. That's not a compliment.

    Back on topic:

    Laws of Nature: Their Nature and Know-ability

    How boring is that, the very topic of the conference Bee is attending?

    Maybe it's fascinating, but I'd like to see some actual conclusions from it. Nature? That's what Physics is all about. Know-ability? That's what Physics is supposed to find out.

    Seems very general to me. Help, Bee. What is this particular conference supposed to accomplish?

  18. "In any era, the laws of nature take certain forms, and these forms tend in turn to guide contemporary research. But new problems require new ways of thinking. This workshop will gather a small group of physicists, philosophers, and mathematicians in order to explore and share ideas on the nature of physical law. Topics will include the role of time in fundamental physics, the distinction between laws and initial conditions, and the role of mathematics in the formulation of physical law and the role of statistical inference in discovering, confirming, and falsifying laws, including recent explorations of limitations arising from our limited access to the object of study (be it the eternally-inflating universe or the physics of the Planck scale) and from more general considerations."

    From the workshop website that I linked to.

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  20. Yeah, I know Bee, I read that and thanks for re-linking. But honestly, how general is that?

    I will keep further objections, which are plentiful, to myself for the time being.

    I'm not saying it's an unimportant subject, because it is important. I'll just repeat myself as well, in saying it's a bit too general for my taste. And this from a generalist.

    I understand the pressure that Perimeter and other IAS's are under, I'm just wondering if we could get more specific.

    For example I'll throw out just one idea for a future conference, and this is just one of many more-specific topics we/I would like to see:

    The Current State of Research and Progress in Causal Dynamical Triangulations (Buckyspace!)

    Is that specific enough, or should I have thrown "Phenomenological" in there somewhere?

  21. I can remember a time when one might not of felt too comfortable with the idea of a virtual world?:)

    “You ask Multivac. I dare you. Five dollars says it can’t be done.”

    “Adell was just drunk enough to try, just sober enough to be able to phrase the necessary symbols and operations into a question which, in words, might have corresponded to this: Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age?

    Or maybe it could be put more simply like this: How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?
    Multivac fell dead and silent. The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of clicking relays ended.

    Then, just as the frightened technicians felt they could hold their breath no longer, there was a sudden springing to life of the teletype attached to that portion of Multivac. Five words were printed: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

    Of course there can be abuse of the kind that becomes "emotionally connected," can hinge on what we might consider "as real" yet only exists in the mind or on a "created platform?"

    The power of the mind is very effective at changing the reality around us. Are we mechanically blurring the lines of reality, as to now devlping the "New Frankenstein s?"

    Hmmmm... blogging is evolving?

    Steven's 3d holographs coordination of a medium(Abbott) for communication lends to this dimensional revelation for the real interaction from some emergent principal, as a algorithm based expression from emergence into reality??

    For me I was searching for ways in which to "reduce costs" and engage people from different locations across the country. It was important to reducing the cost to getting these ideas out, was also to keep organizations within the mandate of their costs working from that non profitability. I did transmit this knowledge back then based on that idea.

    Secondly, as in the interest of public engagement of those in science, the blogging experience and outreach are a vital connection to "sharing information" that is not just done in that format, but works correlative in moving the ideals along in society as well. I see the science magazines are evolving too?

    Simultaneous telephone conversations from those in different locations while holding the meeting now.

    So for me, Pirsa was a "valued insight" as to what can happen in the future according to the knowledge development staged at that moment for the individual to progresses at the level of knowledge available to the student and those who practice the trade.

    Why deny that this search exists out their in society. Assume there is a hunger out there in others to advance their "knowledge base" while having been disconnected because of the same reason and needs to supply food and shelter for their. Work in other venues, while still pursuant to their science. Not all make surf boards, but many, do other things.


  22. Hi Bee,

    Niayesh Afshordi, Perimeter Institute
    Anthony Aguirre, University of California, Santa Cruz
    Julian Barbour, College Farm
    Ariel Caticha, University of Albany (SUNY)
    Paul Davies, Arizona State University
    Doreen Fraser, University of Waterloo
    Marcelo Gleiser, Dartmouth College
    Philip Goyal, Perimeter Institute
    Lucien Hardy, Perimeter Institute
    Sabine Hossenfelder, Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics
    Jenann Ismael, University of Sydney
    Kevin Kelly, Carnegie Mellon
    Kevin Knuth, University of Albany (SUNY)
    Janna Levin, Columbia University
    Huw Price, University of Sydney
    John Roberts, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
    Lee Smolin, Perimeter Institute
    Chris Smeenk, University of Western Ontario
    Rob Spekkens, Perimeter Institute
    Roberto Unger, Harvard University
    Xiao-Gang Wen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology & Perimeter Institute
    Mark Wilson, University of Pittsburgh

    Although recognizing many on the above participant list as being scientists, I’m not certain which are known more as to be philosophers. I was wondering if you know which would be those so considered as such as I would like to follow up on what it is that they represent in such regard. I’m assuming those like Lucien Hardy or Rob Spekkens as being foundationalist might be so considered or perhaps Paul Davies and Lee Smolin in some respects, yet who on this list would be considered primarily as being first and foremost as philosopher?



  23. Hi Bee,

    From my own perspective I’m disappointed not to find either David Z Albert or Harvey Brown on this list as for me each would have something of value to be brought to such a conference which I don’t otherwise find as being represented.



  24. Steven: It is sometimes not helpful to over-specify a workshop topic, especially not if it has such a diverse audience as this one. It is better to come up with a general aim and see how things go. I don't understand your criticism. You don't have to be interested in any workshop any institute organizes. There are btw plenty of places that allow you to submit your own workshop proposals, so go ahead. Best,


  25. Hi Phil,

    I don't know and I'm not a friend of putting people into boxes, I don't see what it's good for. Why some people don't participate in a workshop can have all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with the workshop topic in particular, as I think is obvious. It is thus quite pointless to ask why some people you'd have expected to be there are not on the list of participants. Best,


  26. Hi Bee,

    I can understand you yourself not liking people to be confined to boxes and yet this is the way the conference by way of its own conception is defined. To tell you the truth I was more interested what metaphysical or ontological perspectives (if any) each of the participants subscribe to, more than what particular category they might be consider to fall into. As for my comment as to who not being represented wasn’t actually a complaint, yet merely my opinion that the conference would have been further enriched by their presents. All in all you can just take my comments as being one of that curious fly that wished he’d find himself on the conference wall:-)



  27. Phil,

    I do know that Steven Weinstein and Doreen Fraser are philosophers here at UWaterloo. However, both have been formally trained in physics.

    Also, it's too bad to not see Harvey Brown on the list, but I imagine he has prior commitments. He is one of my favourite speakers.


    Any of the talks you can recommend so far?

  28. Phil,

    Unger is quite well-known in Brazil. He served as Minister of Strategic Affairs a few years ago. Considered a very controversial figure here. He is collaborating with Smolin, and is a professor at Harvard.

    Gleiser is also a well-known physicist in Brazil. He has several books in Portuguese on science outreach published here.

    Notice that both do not live in Brazil, but still they do have some participation here one way or another.


  29. Hi Luke,

    So far, nothing too interesting. Gives me some thoughts I might write a blogpost about, but can't say great insights have been communicated. Best,


  30. BTW, Unger is not a physicist, more like a philosopher or social theorist, and his collaboration with Smolin on the nature of time and variation of physical laws came initially as a big surprise for me, some time back.

  31. Okay putting second life aside.

    Just thinking out loud here. I think you have generally explained this idea.

    Imagine your lecture given by slides, opening with a blog page introduction. Each next page is a blog page entry linked from the introduction.

    Each page as you progress has a comment section on the side, "your tweeting" as to real time along with those comments.

    As you can expect a noise level, it is clear whether the comments or tweets are in concert with the subject at hand, you can after the lecture is over, peruse for info that might extend or contribute to the lecture/discussion after the talk.


  32. Hi Christine,

    Thanks for the info and the links regarding the two Brazilian participants. I’ll have to look a little more closely at them, yet at first glance we have Unger, a law theorist, finding quantum uncertainty as having application and influence in realms beyond for which such concepts were initially developed. I find nothing new here really, as ever since Bohr and his boys put forward the Copenhagen Interpretation in respect to QM there have been people attempting to extend it as being relevant metaphysically to almost everything and anything. Now on the other hand you have Gleiser, who after reading his bio learn has a new book out called “A Tear at The Edge of Creation”, in which his central premise being that the continued search for symmetry in physics being nothing more than fool’s gold, as being simply a reflection of how we would like to find things, rather than the reason for why they are. As I find difficulty with subscribing to such a view I’ll definitely have to pick this one up as to see what arguments he makes in such regard.

    However, after looking at this list of participants more carefully, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps Bee’s function in all this, as one having such a strong phenomalogical centre, is to have them diligently asked as to what evidence they have to support the number of angels they profess to reside on the head of each of their pins :-)



  33. One very simple technique than I know from experience, that works pretty well for talks that are broadcasted online, is simply to have the members of the audience send their questions via email. Any other channel will do, too, of course. You have one, two or more people - depending on the amount of questions that you expect - reading these mails and deciding which questions are duplicates, off topic, too localized or of general interest, the latter are handed to the speaker at certain points in his/her talk. If the speaker likes to, she/he can still read all the mails later, and answer those that did not make it into the show :-)

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  35. Hi Luke,

    I thank you for sorting out for me as to who may be who in all this. So you are a fan of Harvey Brown, I was wondering if this extends past simply his speaking to include his ideas and if perhaps if you have read his book “Physical Relativity”, He certainly gives one things to think about with his arguments in support of a having a fixed reference frame, although in the end I remain unconvinced. In fact what I find even more confusing is him having such strong views on the existence and necessity of having a fixed frame and yet also being a strong supporter of the “Many Worlds view”, as the first thing I would ask him is how could our world have a fixed frame of reference if it be one of just many. That is in such regard I find it difficult to come to grips as to what might represent to be his metaphysical centre.



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  37. Hi Tim vB,

    I agree with much of what you said here. except I think the selection process should be given to a qualified third party and not reside with the speaker. That’s to avoid such selection being self serving in respect to the views of the speaker. As for instance the online moderators of the Quantum2Cosmos Festival lecture chose a question of mine to be asked of Rob Spekkens in regards to the views he expressed pertaining to the foundations. This question was mean’s to have it realized by the attendance that other reasonable views existed and to have him to more clearly define his own. Now I’m not saying that if given the choice Spekkens would have rather ignored or avoided the question, yet simply indicating the potential if the format would allow for such. That’s why I would insist there has to be concerns in respect to transparency blended with those regarding the level of signal in respect to noise.



  38. Hi Phil,

    Well, I am particularly very curious about what Unger has to say. He is a very interesting figure, and as I mentioned previously, also considered a very, very controversial figure here in Brazil, to the point of some questioning whether he is a genius or a madman. In a private email, some time ago, Smolin mentioned that he was the most "challenging philosopher" that he ever worked with. If you are interested in something new, unexpected, even if you may not agree with, then listen to this man, even if for just fun. Or you may feel to take him seriously, as Smolin does. Maybe Sabine has some impressions to mention here?


  39. BTW, perhaps some discussion might also appear here.

  40. This comment has been removed by the author.

  41. Hi Bee,

    You wrote:
    It is better to come up with a general aim and see how things go. I don't understand your criticism.

    I wasn't criticizing so much as commenting. I suppose my "stand" is that one can over-generalize as much as over-specialize. It's open to debate, shrug. But guess which one pays more? :-)

    It's good I suppose to get cutting-edge theoreticians such as yourself and Lee and all the Perimeter crowd together with those trained in Aristotelian Logic (Philosophers). I just thought this subject was done to death, and done so long ago. From logic, General and Special relativity can spring, but I don't see how a thousand Socrates teaching a thousand Platos each in turn teaching a thousand Aritotles each, for 10,000 years (or a million), could ever have come up with Quantum Mechanics.

    You further wrote:
    You don't have to be interested in any workshop any institute organizes.

    Actually I am interested in this topic. I suppose it should be re-run every 5 years, perhaps every year as rapidly accelerating (jumping, snapping, crackling and popping?) experimental results have us re-thinking everything. My point was there are a lot more less-general (yet not as specific as say, CDT) questions to be answered.

    In any event, regarding the topic of this conference, George Musser, the Editor and portal of all Physics and Astronomy articles at Scientific American, sums it up nicely toward the end of his book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory (originally submitted as The C.I.G. to Quantum Gravity, but the editor felt "String Theory" was a catchier title), where George wrote (in '07 or '08), on page 293:

    Over the past few years, string theorists have been branching out in directions that are fairly new for them. On the nitty-gritty side, they've sought to make contact with experiment by preparing testable predictions for the LHC, astronomical observatories, and other instruments. On the theoretical side, some of them have even sought to make contact with philosophical thinking. Loop theorists have long taken an interest in philosophy, while particle and string theorists have thought of it as woolly. Nonetheless, I've spotted philosophers at string conferences.

    Historically, the greatest difficulty in scientific revolutions is usually not the missing piece but the extraneous one - the assumption that we've taken for granted but is actually unnecessary. Philosophers are trained to smoke out these mental interlopers. Many of the problems that scientists now face are simply the latest guise of deep questions that have troubled thinkers for thousands of years. Philosophers bring this depth of experience with them. Many have backgrounds in physics as well.

    He goes on but that's enough for now. Read the book.

    You conclude:
    There are btw plenty of places that allow you to submit your own workshop proposals, so go ahead.

    Cool, and thanks. Name one. Or name 3, beginning with the best. :-)

  42. The first talks of the PI workshop are now available at PIRSA here.

  43. Hi Steven,

    "It's good I suppose to get cutting-edge theoreticians such as yourself and Lee and all the Perimeter crowd together with those trained in Aristotelian Logic (Philosophers). I just thought this subject was done to death, and done so long ago. From logic, General and Special relativity can spring, but I don't see how a thousand Socrates teaching a thousand Platos each in turn teaching a thousand Aritotles each, for 10,000 years (or a million), could ever have come up with Quantum Mechanics."

    I think you missed the point of the workshop abstract, though it is very nicely contained in your quote from Musser's book. Discoveries in science are never results of strict logic alone. They draw on intuition and experience and that again results in a typical mode of thinking that is very much specific to today's society as well as to a specific community and its history. It is worthwhile every now and then to question and analyze these modes of thinking as to whether they are adequate or incomplete. Best,


  44. Hi Christine,

    I will certainly look into what Unger has to say, if for no other reason being some of the most enlightening thoughts I’ve been exposed to where those of geniuses that just happened to also be madmen. It’s to bad that to be mad would not also have one to be necessarily a genius, as there seems to be an amble supply of them always to be found in the world. Now that has a thought come to mind, as just realizing I’ve never heard woman to insist this term be made gender neutral:-)



  45. I think you missed the point of the workshop abstract, though it is very nicely contained in your quote from Musser's book. Discoveries in science are never results of strict logic alone.

    Of course they are not, Bee, hence quantum mechanics.

    Christine, thanks for the link re Unger. A lawyer/politician is at this conference ... why? I guess because Lee Smolin likes his thinking. That's cool for now. The whole conference frankly looks to be a big prequel to the release of Lee's next book, which is when? I'll buy it. I enjoyed his last two.

    Bee, you wrote:
    They draw on intuition and experience and that again results in a typical mode of thinking that is very much specific to today's society as well as to a specific community and its history. It is worthwhile every now and then to question and analyze these modes of thinking as to whether they are adequate or incomplete. Best,


    I love what you're into Bee. Using actual data and gathering more data to back up theory. Sounds reasonable. How else would we have QM?

    Frankly, I'm not that impressed with "today's society", Bee, especially in America. I think it's an improvement over the male-dominant society of the 50's and early '60's, but we have much to improve on.

    Rutgers HEP Physicist Dan Friedan's mother wrote the single most important Western (at least American) culture-changing book of the 20th-Century, that being Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," but is it possible the radical change it produced has gone too far in the other direction? If so as I believe, things will swing back before settling in a brave new world. The wavefunction in cultural action. Shrug.


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