Monday, August 29, 2011

FQXi Conference 2011

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.


  1. "neurobiologists, biologists and psychologists"

    In theory, adding micronized carborundum to engine oil will polish all interfaces and make things better. In practice, adding abrasive to lubrication is like putting economists in charge of economies. The grand view does not include local success.

  2. Al, I think the more accurate statement is that you should not let the Chicago school of economists run economies. Economists aren't all the same and that is the problem people don 't seem to get.

  3. @Eric. Said Bee,"I have to locate my baggage" Process is top down, product is bottom up. If levied penalty is less than profit in hand, it's not a deterrent - it's a business plan. Bee's luggage lost only causes loss to Bee, a strong incentive for others to misbehave.

    We have no understanding of time and mass. Remove those from the universe. Remaining are the standard model less the Higgs and string theory. Luggage or starships, they're lost.

  4. Al, no matter how much I disagree with that philosophy I certainly always admire your writing style.

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  6. Hi Bee,

    Quite the assortment of specialties and personalities you’re being exposed to there, to make me wish just for a moment I’d taken my passions more seriously. I must thank you for that video talk of David Eagleman which had me to wonder about your question regarding free will as possibility relates to certainty and truth as it having to do with quality. Then I think of you having David Albert within ear shot who has broached this question from yet another angle, with his recognition of what he referred as the possibility of there being a real “private will” whose existence being dependent upon what the underlying mechanism of world happens to be.

    I also identify with what you mention being the problem of having greater breath then depth at such events, to then be instantly reminded of David Bohm, that is how he relished such opportunities and seemed to draw at least inspiration from them to consider new questions to address his questions, even if not new questions to find his answers.

    However what there was about Bohm I’m most reminded of when it came to such meeting of minds is him finding the cerebral posture of the attendees being of the greatest importance in regards to their success, with him drawing attention to what forms the distinction between ordinary discussion and serious dialogue. That being each of us knows our thoughts on some things pretty well, while we only think we know how those compare to others that we encounter.

    What he then recognized as his challenge on such occasions was found as to how well he was able to shut his own thoughts down, as not to have them heard as a solo performance, yet try to hear that of the choir and in having the choir to hear his as it listening with them. This might appear to be a strange methodology for a scientist and yet when one really thinks about it, is the strength of science found in a person’s ability to gather as to express their own thoughts or rather being able to listen to thoughts one is attempting to hear being those other than their own.

    Anyway, bottom line, I wish you have a good time in listening and hope you’ll be heard with some of the others choosing to do the same.

    "[Thought] seems to have some inertia, a tendency to continue. It seems to have a necessity that we keep on doing it. However ... we often find that we cannot easily give up the tendency to hold rigidly to patterns of thought built up over a long time. We are then caught up in what may be called absolute necessity. This kind of thought leaves no room at all intellectually for any other possibility, while emotionally and physically, it means we take a stance in our feelings, in our bodies, and indeed, in our whole culture, of holding back or resisting. This stance implies that under no circumstances whatsoever can we allow ourselves to give up certain things or change them."

    -David Bohm & Mark Edwards, "Changing Consciousness"_, p. 15

    "A key difference between a dialogue and an ordinary discussion is that, within the latter people usually hold relatively fixed positions and argue in favor of their views as they try to convince others to change. At best this may produce agreement or compromise, but it does not give rise to anything creative."

    -David Bohm & David Peat, "Science Order, and Creativity"_, p. 241



  7. Hi Phil,

    Strange as it may sound, I have sometimes found it beneficial to be too tired to actually think while listening. It seems to support a mode of more passive input storage that is less opinionated upon encountering points of view that are not compatible with my own opinions. It has the disadvantage however that it takes some while for me to convert input into output or, in other words, I'm not of much use in the moment of a discussion. In any case, while I am "now" somewhat confused about the existence of now or time altogether, sooner or later the post on free will will have to follow. Best,


  8. Bee:In any case, while I am "now" somewhat confused about the existence of now or time altogether, sooner or later the post on free will will have to follow.

    Looking forward to it for a lot of reasons:)


  9. In, "In Compatible Arrows" before the book of Sean's can materialize, Sean has to go through this process of explaining himself, gathering data, and taking to others. He is growing in terms of his knowledge base, as with most scientists and science writers, an accumulative synopsis of that journey follows in book form. It is a summation. That is still subject to change, all the while the scientist is building new fact come to light and addendum's added.

    But through that process, he has built himself a foundation. I is that process that links him to the possibilities that will come to him by way of potential? It is this new POV that allows him to be open to thoughts that may have never been entertained before.

    It is with that data the realization exists that a break through will and can occur, by how the spark fires all the neuron to have found, that Sean can say he has fully Grokked it.

    I have no say in that future just that I know "he has" by how he sets up self up. How he opens him self to all of it.

    Each book is another starting point for the future.


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  11. Hi Bee,

    So as I gather you have long put Bohm’s method into practice, even though your motivations might differ. That aside I like Plato look forward to your posted thoughts on free will as soon as they’ve percolated enough to have them to surface; that being whether or not you consider you have any choice in the matter:-)



  12. I disagree with what for example Sean is saying about time at CV. I left a comment on TTESKAT:

    "[quoting from his post]” The past and future are equally real” – in a classical deterministic universe, and just maybe if the many worlds idea is true, but no. An “emitter” produces a wavefunction that expands out and then either a collapse occurs or else you believe all of the absorptions really happen (which, despite beggiing off, really does violate conservation laws.) Can you really imagine that running backwards, toward that single emitting point?"

  13. Neil,

    You need to define the Equilibrium in context of the Past/Future? David Albert Interview is most helpful in relation to Sean Carroll.

    Plato:Time 53:48 David mentions the point about a memory forming out of a equilibrium which not only encompasses the future, but can also include the past.

    Space\Time Cone?

    Where in reality does such a circumstance exist? Can such an equilibrium exist? A heat death, or a singularity that is scientifically lead too? Where is that?

    If such a location exists then is it only attached to the singularity, or, is there some other mechanism we are yet aware of?

    The synapse of the human being is a very potential recognition of what access we may gain to "universal intelligence?" How do you get there? Your a reasonable fellow:)

    Uncle Al, you can help?:)


  14. Question - are there adequate explanations for dark matter within the Standard Model?

  15. Why after "collision processes" do we work with faster than light entities through the water, the earth and ice?

    What can we hope to see in any collision process as a link between "the singularity and equilibrium" that would allow for such informational transfers smoothly? So you look at the affects right? You look at the backdrops and what is explained once information has reach their targets.

    So we produce an experiment on earth(LHC and others) that mimics the cosmos in action. We build Calorimeters as backdrops for the universes abilities after the events. As LIGO perhaps or Lisa, You see?

    So if the universe is expanding can it ever go back on itself? Can the universe speed up? Can the universe hold itself in status?

    We need to find such an equilibrium nature for such ability of informational transfer to ever account for the exchange of the universe from a previous state to this existing one.

    What are it's motivations for such expansion?



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