Seminars
Event Date: [ 11.12.14 4:45 PM ]
Location:
United States

"To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves." 

HEADCON '14

In September a group of social scientists gathered for HEADCON '14, an Edge Conference at Eastover Farm. Speakers addressed a range of topics concerning the social (or moral, or emotional) brain: Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: "The Teenager's Sense Of Social Self"; Lawrence Ian Reed: "The Face Of Emotion"; Molly Crockett: "The Neuroscience of Moral Decision Making"; Hugo Mercier: "Toward The Seamless Integration Of The Sciences"; Jennifer Jacquet: "Shaming At Scale"; Simone Schnall: "Moral Intuitions, Replication, and the Scientific Study of Human Nature"; David Rand: "How Do You Change People's Minds About What Is Right And Wrong?"; L.A. Paul: "The Transformative Experience"; Michael McCullough: "Two Cheers For Falsification". Also participating as "kibitzers" were four speakers from HEADCON '13, the previous year's event: Fiery CushmanJoshua KnobeDavid Pizarro, and Laurie Santos.

We are now pleased to present the program in its entiretynearly six hours of Edge Video and a downloadable PDF of the 55,000-word transcript.



[6 hours] 

John Brockman, Editor
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

 Download PDF of Manuscript  

Copyright (c) 2014 by Edge Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Please feel free to use for personal, noncommercial use (only).

_____
 

Related on Edge:

HeadCon '13
Edge Meetings & Seminars
Edge Master Classes
 


CONTENTS
 

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: "The Teenager's Sense Of Social Self"

The reason why that letter is nice is because it illustrates what's important to that girl at that particular moment in her life. Less important that man landed on moon than things like what she was wearing, what clothes she was into, who she liked, who she didn't like. This is the period of life where that sense of self, and particularly sense of social self, undergoes profound transition. Just think back to when you were a teenager. It's not that before then you don't have a sense of self, of course you do.  A sense of self develops very early. What happens during the teenage years is that your sense of who you are—your moral beliefs, your political beliefs, what music you're into, fashion, what social group you're into—that's what undergoes profound change.


[36.22]

SARAH-JAYNE BLAKEMORE is a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore's Edge Bio Page


Lawrence Ian Reed: "The Face Of Emotion"

What can we tell from the face? There’s some mixed data, but data out that there’s a pretty strong coherence between what is felt and what’s expressed on the face. Happiness, sadness, disgust, contempt, fear, anger, all have prototypic or characteristic facial expressions. In addition to that, you can tell whether two emotions are blended together. You can tell the difference between surprise and happiness, and surprise and anger, or surprise and sadness. You can also tell the strength of an emotion. There seems to be a relationship between the strength of the emotion and the strength of the contraction of the associated facial muscles. 



[26:27]

LAWRENCE IAN REED is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology, Skidmore College. Lawrence Ian Reed's Edge Bio Page


Molly Crockett: "The Neuroscience of Moral Decision Making"

Imagine we could develop a precise drug that amplifies people’s aversion to harming others; you won’t hurt a fly, everyone becomes Buddhist monks or something. Who should take this drug? Only convicted criminals—people who have committed violent crimes? Should we put it in the water supply? These are normative questions. These are questions about what should be done. I feel grossly unprepared to answer these questions with the training that I have, but these are important conversations to have between disciplines. Psychologists and neuroscientists need to be talking to philosophers about this and these are conversations that we need to have because we don’t want to get to the point where we have the technology and then we haven’t had this conversation because then terrible things could happen. 



[44:00]

MOLLY CROCKETT is Associate Professor, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford; Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page 


Hugo Mercier: "Toward The Seamless Integration Of The Sciences"

One of the great things about cognitive science is that it allowed us to continue that seamless integration of the sciences, from physics, to chemistry, to biology, and then to the mind sciences, and it's been quite successful at doing this in a relatively short time. But on the whole, I feel there's still a failure to continue this thing towards some of the social sciences such as, anthropology, to some extent, and sociology or history that still remain very much shut off from what some would see as progress, and as further integration. 



[39:34]

HUGO MERCIER, a Cognitive Scientist, is an Ambizione Fellow at the Cognitive Science Center at the University of Neuchâtel. Hugo Mercier's Edge Bio Page


Jennifer Jacquet: "Shaming At Scale"

Shaming, in this case, was a fairly low-cost form of punishment that had high reputational impact on the U.S. government, and led to a change in behavior. It worked at scale—one group of people using it against another group of people at the group level. This is the kind of scale that interests me. And the other thing that it points to, which is interesting, is the question of when shaming works. In part, it's when there's an absence of any other option. Shaming is a little bit like antibiotics. We can overuse it and actually dilute its effectiveness, because it's linked to attention, and attention is finite. With punishment, in general, using it sparingly is best. But in the international arena, and in cases in which there is no other option, there is no formalized institution, or no formal legislation, shaming might be the only tool that we have, and that's why it interests me. 



[31:58]

JENNIFER JACQUET is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary? Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page


Simone Schnall: "Moral Intuitions, Replication, and the Scientific Study of Human Nature"

In the end, it's about admissible evidence and ultimately, we need to hold all scientific evidence to the same high standard. Right now we're using a lower standard for the replications involving negative findings when in fact this standard needs to be higher. To establish the absence of an effect is much more difficult than the presence of an effect. 



[42:15]

SIMONE SCHNALL is a University Senior Lecturer and Director of the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory at Cambridge University. Simone Schnall's Edge Bio Page 


David Rand: "How Do You Change People's Minds About What Is Right And Wrong?" 

What all these different things boil down to is the idea that there are future consequences for your current behavior. You can't just do whatever you want because if you are selfish now, it'll come back to bite you. I should say that there are lots of theoretical models, math models, computational models, lab experiments, and also real world field data from field experiments showing the power of these reputation observability effects for getting people to cooperate.



[34:37]

DAVID RAND is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Economics, and Management at Yale University, and the Director of Yale University's Human Cooperation Laboratory. David Rand's Edge Bio page


L.A. Paul: "The Transformative Experience"

We're going to pretend that modern-day vampires don't drink the blood of humans; they're vegetarian vampires, which means they only drink the blood of humanely-farmed animals. You have a one-time-only chance to become a modern-day vampire. You think, "This is a pretty amazing opportunity, but do I want to gain immortality, amazing speed, strength, and power? Do I want to become undead, become an immortal monster and have to drink blood? It's a tough call." Then you go around asking people for their advice and you discover that all of your friends and family members have already become vampires. They tell you, "It is amazing. It is the best thing ever. It's absolutely fabulous. It's incredible. You get these new sensory capacities. You should definitely become a vampire." Then you say, " Can you tell me a little more about it?" And they say, "You have to become a vampire to know what it's like. You can't, as a mere human, understand what it's like to become a vampire just by hearing me talk about it. Until you're a vampire, you're just not going to know what it's going to be like."



[48:42]

L.A. PAUL is Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Professorial Fellow in the Arché Research Centre at the University of St. Andrews.  L.A. Paul's Edge Bio page


Michael McCullough: "Two Cheers For Falsification"

What I want to do today is raise one cheer for falsification, maybe two cheers for falsification. Maybe it’s not philosophical falsificationism I’m calling for, but maybe something more like methodological falsificationism. It has an important role to play in theory development that maybe we have turned our backs on in some areas of this racket we’re in, particularly the part of it that I do—Ev Psych—more than we should have.

edge.org/conversation/michael_mccullough

[43:37]

MICHAEL MCCULLOUGH is Director, Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory, Professor of Psychology, Cooper Fellow, University of Miami; Author, Beyond Revenge. Michael McCullough's Edge Bio page


Also Participating

FIERY CUSHMAN is Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University. JOSHUA KNOBE is an Experimental Philosopher; Associate Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Yale University. DAVID PIZARRO is Associate Professor of Psychology, Cornell University, specializing in moral judgment. LAURIE SANTOS is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology; Director, Comparative Cognition Laboratory, Yale University. 

 

On the Road
Event Date: [ 10.29.14 3:15 PM ]
Location:
United States

This year's Edge-Serpentine Gallery collaboration took place in London at part of the Serpentine's "Extinction Marathon: Visions of the Future" event, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery's extension, designed by Zaha Hadid, on Oct. 18, 2014. The 2-hour event, which was live-streamed, is presented, here in its entiretly, on Edge.

The first hour was a converseation between Stewart Brand and Richard Prum on whether of not the prospect of "de-extinction" changes how we think about extinction. For the second hour, Molly Crockett introduced four Edgies—Helena Cronin, Jennifer Jacquet, Steve Jones, and Chiara Marletto, who gave 10-minute talks with their perspectives on the subject of extinction. This was followed by a panel.

NEW—COMPLETE VIDEO AND TEXT

Part I: "DE-EXTINCTION": STEWART BRAND & RICHARD PRUM
With Hans Ulrich Obrist and John Brockman

Does the prospect of "de-extinction" change how we think about extinction? Conservation science is shifting from being species-centric to function-centric, focussing on the overall health of ecosystems. Does the extinction of a species leave a "gap in nature" that can only be filled by returning the species to life and to the wild? Or will a functionally close relative serve? Is a de-extincted species really nothing more than a functionally close relative anyway? If it is too difficult and expensive to revive every extinct species, what are the criteria for deciding which ones to work on? Humans are the ones deciding. What ethics and aesthetics should guide those decisions?

STEWART BRAND is the Founder of the "The Whole Earth Catalog" and Co-founder of The Long Now Foundation and Revive and Restore; Author, Whole Earth Discipline.
Stewart Brand's Edge Bio Page

RICHARD PRUM is an Evolutionary Ornithologist at Yale University, where he is the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He is working on a book about duck sex, aesthetic evolution, and the origin of beauty.
Richard Prum's Edge Bio Page

[...Continue to Part I—Video & Text]



Part II: "EDGIES ON EXTINCTION"

Molly Crockett introduces and moderates an event of four 10-minute talks by Helena Cronin, Jennifer Jacquet, Steve Jones, and Chiara Marletto, followed by a discussion joined by Hans Ulrich Obrist, and John Brockman.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: When we spoke with John Brockman about the Extinction Marathon he suggested, as a second part—as I mentioned in previous marathons we got the Edge community to realize maps and different formulas, and John thought today it would be wonderful to do a panel with UK based scientists who are part of the Edge community. We are extremely delighted that we now will have four presentations by Helena Cronin, by Chiara Marletto, by Jennifer Jacquet, and by Steve Jones. We welcome Steve Jones back to the Serpentine because he was part of the 2007 Experiment Marathon with Olafur Eliasson. The entire panel will be introduced by Molly Crockett. Molly is an associate professor for experimental psychology and fellow of Jesus college at the University of Oxford. She holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Cambridge and a B.S. in neuroscience from UCLA. Dr. Crockett studies the neuroscience and psychology of altruism, of morality, and self-control. Her work has been published in many top academic journals including Science, PNAS, and also Neuron. Molly Crockett will now introduce Helena, Chiara, Jennifer, and Steve. We then, together with Molly and all the speakers and John, give a panel after that.

MOLLY CROCKETT:  I'm very, very pleased to introduce Helena Cronin. She's the co-director of the Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the director of Darwin at LSE at the London School of Economics. She has many notable publications including the edited series, Darwinism Today, and the award winning, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today, that has been featured in the New York Times' Best Books and Nature's Best Science Books of the Year. Her current research interests focus on the evolutionary understanding of sex differences. Let's give a very warm welcome to Helena and welcome her to the stage. ...


... A strange thing happened on the way to a better world in pursuit of an admirable quest, that is, a world free of sex discrimination where you’re judged on your own qualities and not your sex. Truth and falsity went topsy-turvy. The truth—the silence of sex differences—became dangerous, unmentionable, and in its place the conventional wisdom, which is a ragbag of ideas that have long been extinct but are kept ghoulishly alive by popularity, became the entrenched orthodoxy influencing public thinking, agendas and policy-making, and completely crowding out science and sense.

My aim is to show you why the current orthodoxy should be abandoned and why, if you really care about a fairer world, the science does matter. It matters profoundly. I’m going to take two examples, both about the professions, because they very well epitomize the orthodox litany: how society systematically discriminates against women, and how at work they are victims of pervasive sexism. ...

HELENA CRONIN is the Co-Director of LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science; Author, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today.  Helena Cronin's Edge Bio Page


There is a new fundamental theory of physics that's called constructor theory, and was proposed by David Deutsch who pioneered the theory of the universe of quantum computer. David and I are working this theory together. The fundamental idea in this theory is that we forumlate all laws of physics in terms of what tasks are possible, what are impossible, and why. In this theory we have an exact physical characterization of an object that has those properties, and we call that knowledge. Note that knowledge here means knowledge without knowing the subject, as in the thoery of knowledge of the philosopher, Karl Popper.

We’ve just come to the conclusion that the fact that extinction is possible means that knowledge can be instantiated in our physical world. In fact, extinction is the very process by which that knowledge is disabled in its ability to remain instantiated in physical systems because there are problems that it cannot solve. With any luck that bit of knowledge can be replaced with a better one. ... 

CHIARA MARLETTO is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Materials Department, University of Oxford.  Chiara Marletto's Edge Bio Page


I dream about the sea cow or imagine what they would be like to see in the wild, but the case of the Pinta Island giant tortoise was a particularly strange feeling for me personally because I had spent many afternoons in the Galapagos Islands when I was a volunteer with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Lonesome George’s den with him. If any of you visited the Galapagos, you know that you can even feed the giant tortoises that are in the Charles Darwin Research Station. This is Lonesome George here.
 
He lived to a ripe old age but failed, as they pointed out many times, to reproduce. Just recently, in 2012, he died, and with him the last of his species. He was couriered to the American Museum of Natural History and taxidermied there. A couple weeks ago his body was unveiled. This was the unveiling that I attended, and at this exact moment in time I can say that I was feeling a little like I am now: nervous and kind of nauseous, while everyone else seemed calm. I wasn’t prepared to see Lonesome George. Here he is taxidermied, looking out over Central Park, which was strange as well. At that moment realized that I knew the last individual of this species to go extinct. That presents this strange predicament for us to be in in the 21st century—this idea of conspicuous extinction. ...

JENNIFER JACQUET is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary? Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page


What I wanted to talk about is somewhat of a parallel of that in human populations. If you were to go to a textbook on human biology from the time of Darwin or a bit later, you would certainly get an image that looked a bit like this. This is an image of the so-called races of humankind—racial types, as they called them. I’m not going to go into the question of whether there are real races of humankind because there aren’t. It’s interesting to note that until quite recently people assumed, and scientists assumed too, that the human species was divided into distinct groups that were biologically different from each other and had been isolated from each other for a long, long time.

Well, to some extent that was true. Until quite recently, human populations were isolated from each other. That’s changing quite quickly. ...

STEVE JONES is an Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London.  Steve Jones's Edge Bio Page


MOLLY CROCKETT is an Associate Professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford; Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging.

Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page

 


HANS ULRICH OBRIST is the Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London; Author, Ways of Curating. Hans Ulrich Obrist's Edge Bio Page

JOHN BROCKMAN is the Editor and Publisher of Edge.org; Chairman of Brockman, Inc.; Author, By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture. John Brockman's Edge Bio Page

[...Continue to Part II — Video & Text]


EDGE & SERPENTINE GALLERY

Previous Edge-Serpentine collaborations have included:

"Formulae for the 21st Century" (2007)
"The Table-Top Experiment Marathon" (2007)
"Maps For The 21st Century" (2010)
"Information Gardens" (2011)  


SPEAKING OF EXTINCTIONS....

Edge's own contribution to the conversation will be published in February:

Special Events
Event Date: [ 10.13.14 10:15 AM ]
Location:
United States

EDGE: LIVE, IN LONDON

COMING SOON: COMPLETE VIDEO COVERAGE OF THE EVENT 

This year's collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery in London was part of the "Extinction Marathon: Visions of the Future" event, which will took place in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery's extension, designed by Zaha Hadid, on Oct. 18th. The entire event which was live-streamed, will be presented on Edge.

An EDGE Conversation: "DE-EXTINCTION": Stewart Brand & Richard Prum
with Hans Ulrich Obrist & John Brockman

Does the prospect of "de-extinction" change how we think about extinction? Conservation science is shifting from being species-centric to function-centric, focussing on the overall health of ecosystems. Does the extinction of a species leave a "gap in nature" that can only be filled by returning the species to life and to the wild? Or will a functionally close relative serve? Is a de-extincted species really nothing more than a functionally close relative anyway? If it is too difficult and expensive to revive every extinct species, what are the criteria for deciding which ones to work on? Humans are the ones deciding. What ethics and aesthetics should guide those decisions?

   

STEWART BRAND is the Founder of the "The Whole Earth Catalog" and Co-founder of The Long Now Foundation and Revive and Restore; Author, Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand's Edge Bio Page

RICHARD PRUM is an Evolutionary Ornithologist at Yale University, where he is the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He is working on a book about duck sex, aesthetic evolution, and the origin of beauty.

Richard Prum's Edge Bio Page


"EDGIES ON EXTINCTION": 10 Minute talks by Helena Cronin, Jennifer Jacquet, Steve Jones, and Chiara Marletto, and an EDGE discussion joined by Molly Crockett, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and John Brockman.


I dream about the sea cow or imagine what they would be like to see in the wild, but the case of the Pinta Island giant tortoise was a particularly strange feeling for me personally because I had spent many afternoons in the Galapagos Islands when I was a volunteer with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Lonesome George’s den with him. If any of you visited the Galapagos, you know that you can even feed the giant tortoises that are in the Charles Darwin Research Station. This is Lonesome George here.
 
He lived to a ripe old age but failed, as they pointed out many times, to reproduce. Just recently, in 2012, he died, and with him the last of his species. He was couriered to the American Museum of Natural History and taxidermied there. A couple weeks ago his body was unveiled. This was the unveiling that I attended, and at this exact moment in time I can say that I was feeling a little like I am now: nervous and kind of nauseous, while everyone else seemed calm. I wasn’t prepared to see Lonesome George. Here he is taxidermied, looking out over Central Park, which was strange as well. At that moment realized that I knew the last individual of this species to go extinct. That presents this strange predicament for us to be in in the 21st century—this idea of conspicuous extinction. ...

 

JENNIFER JACQUET is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary?

Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page

~ ~ ~ ~

There is a new fundamental theory of physics that’s called constructor theory, and was proposed by David Deutsch who pioneered the theory of the universe of quantum computer. David and I are working this theory together. The fundamental idea in this theory is that we formulate all laws of physics in terms of what tasks are possible, what are impossible, and why. In this theory we have an exact physical characterization of an object that has those properties, and we call that knowledge. Note that knowledge here means knowledge without knowing the subject, as in the theory of knowledge of the philosopher, Karl Popper.

We’ve just come to the conclusion that the fact that extinction is possible means that knowledge can be instantiated in our physical world. In fact, extinction is the very process by which that knowledge is disabled in its ability to remain instantiated in physical systems because there are problems that it cannot solve. With any luck that bit of knowledge can be replaced with a better one. ...

 

CHIARA MARLETTO is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Postdoctoral Research Assistnat at the Materials Department at the University of Oxford.

Chiara Marletto's Edge Bio Page

~ ~ ~ ~

What I wanted to talk about is somewhat of a parallel of that in human populations. If you were to go to a textbook on human biology from the time of Darwin or a bit later, you would certainly get an image that looked a bit like this. This is an image of the so-called races of humankind—racial types, as they called them. I’m not going to go into the question of whether there are real races of humankind because there aren’t. It’s interesting to note that until quite recently people assumed, and scientists assumed too, that the human species was divided into distinct groups that were biologically different from each other and had been isolated from each other for a long, long time.

Well, to some extent that was true. Until quite recently, human populations were isolated from each other. That’s changing quite quickly. ...

 

STEVE JONES is a Professor of Genetics at the Galton Laboratory of University College London; Author, The Lanugage of the Genes.

Steve Jones's Edge Bio Page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~ ~ ~ ~

... A strange thing happened on the way to a better world in pursuit of an admirable quest, that is, a world free of sex discrimination where you’re judged on your own qualities and not your sex. Truth and falsity went topsy-turvy. The truth—the silence of sex differences—became dangerous, unmentionable, and in its place the conventional wisdom, which is a ragbag of ideas that have long been extinct but are kept ghoulishly alive by popularity, became the entrenched orthodoxy influencing public thinking, agendas and policy-making, and completely crowding out science and sense.

My aim is to show you why the current orthodoxy should be abandoned and why, if you really care about a fairer world, the science does matter. It matters profoundly. I’m going to take two examples, both about the professions, because they very well epitomize the orthodox litany: how society systematically discriminates against women, and how at work they are victims of pervasive sexism. ...

 

HELENA CRONIN is the Co-Director of LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science; Author, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today.

Helena Cronin's Edge Bio Page

~ ~ ~ ~

MOLLY CROCKETT is an Associate Professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford; Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging.

Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page



                                                                                       

HANS ULRICH OBRIST is the Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London; Author, Ways of Curating. Hans Ulrich Obrist's Edge Bio Page

JOHN BROCKMAN is the Editor and Publisher of Edge.org; Chairman of Brockman, Inc.; Author, By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture. John Brockman's Edge Bio Page


EDGE & SERPENTINE GALLERY

Previous Edge-Serpentine collaborations have included:

"Formulae for the 21st Century" (2007)
"The Table-Top Experiment Marathon" (2007)
"Maps For The 21st Century" (2010)
"Information Gardens" (2011)  


SPEAKING OF EXTINCTIONS....

Edge's own contribution to the conversation will be published in February:

Annual Questions
Event Date: [ 5.31.14 11:00 AM ]
Location:
United States

Edge @ World Science Festival: REAL SCENARIOS THAT KEEP SCIENTISTS UP AT NIGHT
Panelists: Helen Fisher, Amanda Gefter, Seth Lloyd, Steven Pinker, Max Tegmark; Moderator, John Brockman

Science and Story Cafe: Meet the Authors
Date: Saturday, May 31, 2014
Time: 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM


Venue: NYU Kimmel Center
Register Now

What should we be worried about? That is the question John Brockman, founding editor of the celebrated science website Edge, posed in 2013 to our planet’s most influential minds. Five leading scientists share their worries and discuss their own recent books.

Moderator
JOHN BROCKMAN
Editor, Edge.org; Chairman of Brockman, Inc.; Author, By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture; Editor, What Should We Be Worried About?

Featuring 
HELEN FISHER
Biological Anthropologist, Rutgers University; Author, Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love
AMANDA GEFTER
Consultant, New Scientist; Founding Editor, "CultureLab"; Author, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything
SETH LLOYD
Professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering, MIT; Author, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos
STEVEN PINKER
Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
MAX TEGMARK
Physicist, MIT; Researcher, Precision Cosmology; Scientific Director, Foundational Questions Institute; Author, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality

[ED. NOTE: The 2014 World Science Festival takes place May 28-June 2 in New York City. Under the leadership of cofounders Tracy Day and Brian Greenethe Festival, founded in 2008, has evolved into a deep and rich city-wide intellectual feast, available to all. Highly recommended! For information, schedule and tickets, click here. —JB]


 

“Reads like an atlas of fear.”
—New York Times

“Substantial and engrossing.  . . .Brockman and the Edge contributors offer fresh and invaluable perspectives on crucial aspects of our lives.”
Booklist (starred review)

"The most stimulating English-language reading to be had from anywhere in the world." 
—The Canberra Times

“This collection helps us see the myriad possible concerns laid out before us, articulating the various elements of fear that we need to fear.”
—Washington Post

"An awakening read in its entirety."
—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings


Edge Dinners
Event Date: [ 3.17.14 7:30 PM ]
Location:
The Blue Water Cafe
Vancouver,
Canada


Larry PageGoogle and Katinka Matson, Edge, at The Edge Dinner 2014 in Vancouver

A new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs ... and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans. —Freeman Dyson
 

In his 2009 talk at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, Freeman Dyson pointed out that we are entering a new Age of Wonder, which is dominated by computational biology. In articulating his vision for the future he noted that Edge is the nexus of this intellectual activity.


Click on any image below for slideshow

This "worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders" has been getting together for an annual dinner since 1998. The dinner has had many names: "The Millionaires Dinner", "The Digerati Dinner", "The Billionaires' Dinner", "The Edge Science Dinner", "The Age of Wonder Dinner". 

The industrial age had the nineteenth century Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal dinner club and learned society of leading cultural figures, natural philosophers, and industrialists, whose members included engineer James Watt, manufacturer, and his business partner Matthew Boulton (Boulton & Watt steam engines), physician and natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, author and abolitionist Thomas Day,  arms manufacturer Samuel Galton, Jr., chemist Joseph Priestly (discoverer of oxygen), potter Josiah Wedgewood, clergyman, natural philosopher, clock-maker John Whitehurst, botanist and geologist William Withering, and Benjamin Franklin. (Erasmus Darwin and Wedgewood were the grandfathers of Charles Darwin). The Society met each month near the full moon in each other's homes, and in venues such as  Soho House, and Great Barr Hall. They referred to themselves as "lunarticks".  

Edge, through its Master Classes, seminars, online activities, dinners, gathers together the third culture intellectuals and technology pioneers of the post-industrial, digital age. This year's dinner, held in Vancouver at the Blue Water Cafe, was no exception. The group, including founders of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, the father of the iPod, the inventor of the WYSIWYG word processor, people in art, photography, music, distinguished journalists and thinkers, was a remarkable gathering of outstanding minds. These are the people that are rewriting our global culture. 

Some of the topics of conversation at the dinner included analog computation; neuromorphic computing; Nick Metropolis; when bad people are smart (speculating about Flight 370); the psychological pleasure of touching a historical artifact; gene expression patterns in the mouse brain; neuroscience-based understanding of human cognition; digitizing the human brain; space travel; Afonso Cuaron's movie Gravity; the outdated ISS space station; recovery of the Apollo 11 engines; the Superbowl; the Crimean crisis; brain waves and water; love in a warm place; art and danger; the nature of intuition; the inner workings of newspapers; animal interfaces for accessing internet; the role of luck in success; the design of interior configurations of private jets; the history and features of lighter-than-air ships; business models for broadcasting; love in a workplace; digital controls and state secrecy; research showing what produces happiness; how big a role luck plays in forming our destinies; the plasticity of the brain; how to develop your abs by surfing big waves; the marriage of youth and experience; and all generously lubricated by expensive wine and cheap gossip.

John Brockman 
    Vancouver, March 17, 2014

Continue to photo album

See: The Edge Annual Dinners 1999-2013

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Special Events
Event Date: [ 3.4.14 ]
Location:
United States

March 5, 2014

INTRODUCTION

Daniel Kahneman turns 80 today (March 5, 2014). Edge is using this occasion to launch a Reality Club Discussion about his work. (See:  On Kahneman). Also, we are pleased to reprise some of his contributions to our pages below. 

John Brockman

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2013. He is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and Author of Thinking Fast and Slow. (Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page)

        


2007


Millions of people have been asked the question, how satisfied are you with your life? That is a question to the remembering self, and there is a fair amount that we know about the happiness or the well-being of the remembering self. But the distinction between the remembering self and the experiencing self suggests immediately that there is another way to ask about well-being, and that's the happiness of the experiencing self.

 A SHORT COURSE IN THINKING ABOUT THINKING
Edge Master Class
 
Daniel Kahneman, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Katinka Matson, Nathan Myrhvold, Peter Diamandis, Dean Kamen, W. Daniel Hillis, George Smoot, Karla Taylor, Jimmy Wales, Salar Kamangar, George Dyson, Seth Lloyd, Tim O'Reilly, Sergey Brin


Anne Treisman


2008


What we're saying is that there is a technology emerging from behavioral economics. It's not only an abstract thing. You can do things with it. We are just at the beginning. I thought that the input of psychology into behavioral economics was done. But hearing Sendhil was very encouraging because there was a lot of new psychology there. That conversation is continuing and it looks to me as if that conversation is going to go forward. It's pretty intuitive, based on research, good theory, and important. — Daniel Kahneman

A SHORT COURSE IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
Edge Master Class


Jeff Bezos, John Brockman, Max Brockman, George Dyson, W. Daniel Hillis, Daniel Kahneman,   Salar Kamangar,  France LeClerc,  Katinka Matson, Sendhil Mullainathan, Elon Musk, Nathan Myhrvold, Sean Parker, Paul Romer, Richard Thaler, Anne Treisman, Evan Williams 

TWO BIG THINGS HAPPENING IN PSYCHOLOGY TODAY 
A Talk By Daniel Kahneman

PUTTING PSYCHOLOGY INTO BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS 
Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman 


Sendhil Mullainathan, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos


2011


The power of settings, the power of priming, and the power of unconscious thinking, all of those are a major change in psychology. I can't think of a bigger change in my lifetime. You were asking what's exciting? That's exciting, to me.

THE MARVELS AND THE FLAWS OF INTUITIVE THINKING
Daniel Kahneman 
Edge Master Class: THE SCIENCE OF HUMAN NATURE 


Steven Pinker & Daniel Kahneman 


2013


"I'm still not convinced it was a good idea to write the book." — Kahneman on Thinking Fast and Slow

EDGE RETREAT @ SPRING MOUNTAIN VINEYARD


Daniel Kahneman & Richard Thaler 


 

 

On the Road
Event Date: [ 1.24.14 11:45 AM ]
Location:
United States


JANUARY 19-21, 2014

On the road to Munich in January for DLD14, the 10th annual DLD conference (Digital-Life-Day) run by Steffi Czerny and Lukas Kubina for Hubert Burda Media. The theme this year: "Content and Context". It was the fifth time Edge has been asked to participate. (See below for links to our previous DLD co-events.)


Steffi Czerny and John Brockman

This year the Edge conversation was on "information" from the Neandertal DNA sequenced by Svante Pääbo, the founder of the field of ancient DNA, to the multi-particle entanglement states of physicist Anton Zeilinger, which have become essential in fundamental tests of quantum mechanics and in quantum information science, most notably in quantum computation. In addition, Edge's roving editor, Jennifer Jacquet, was present for a session on "Time's Role in the Tragedy of the Commons" in which she developed themes in her work recently presented on Edge


Svante PääboAnton Zeilinger, John Brockman: On Information

Information is the foundation of our universe—and life itself. Cultural impresario John Brockman hosts a Third Culture conversation, spanning science and the humanities.

SVANTE PÄÄBO the founder of the field of ancient DNA, is Director, Department of Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. Among his achievements are the first demonstration of DNA survival in an ancient Egyptian mummy, the first amplification of ancient DNA, the first study of the DNA from the Iceman found in the Alps, and the first retrieval of DNA from a Neanderthal in 1997. Four years ago, he initiated and organized an effort to sequence the entire Neanderthal genome. The first scientific overview of the genome was published in 2009 and was front page news word-wide. He is the author of Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. Svante Pääbo's Edge Bio Page

ANTON ZEILINGER, a physicist, is Professor of Physics at the Quantum Optics, Quantum Nanophysics, Quantum Information Institute of University of Vienna. He is President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the author of Dance of the Photons: From Einstein to Quantum TeleportationZeilinger is a pioneer in the field of quantum information and of the foundations of quantum mechanics. He realized many important quantum information protocols for the first time, including quantum teleportation of an independent qubit, entanglement swapping (i.e. the teleportation of an entangled state), hyper-dense coding (which was the first entanglement-based protocol ever realized in experiment), entanglement-based quantum cryptography, one-way quantum computation and blind quantum computation. His further contributions to the experimental and conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics include multi-particle entanglement and matter wave interference all the way from neutrons via atoms to macromolecules such as fullerenes. Anton Zeilinger's Edge Bio Page


Jennifer Jacquet: Times Role in the Tragedy of the Commons

How do tensions between individuals and groups play out? Between high-consuming people and low? Between the now and the future? Game theory offers answers.

JENNIFER JACQUET is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU, researching shame,cooperation and the tragedy of the commons. She is also Edge's Roving Editor (see interviews with Adam Alter and Joseph Heinrich).

Her work was recently featured on Edge after Nature Climate Change published a study by Jacquet and her colleagues at two Max Planck Institutes on "Delayed Gratification Hurts Cimate Change Cooperation".  Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page


EDGE @DLD: 2011: AN EDGE CONVERSATION IN MUNICH with Stewart Brand, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly, introduced by Andrian Kreye.  A session with three of the original members of Edge who year in and year out provide the core sounding board for the ideas and information we present to the public. I refer to them in private correspondance as "The Council". Every year, beginning late summer, I consult with Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and George Dyson, and together we create the Edge Annual Question which Edge has been asking since 1996. 2010: "INFORMAVORE" with Frank Schirrmacher, Editor of the Feuilleton and Co-Publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Andrian Kreye, Feuilleton Editor of Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich; and Yale computer science visionary David Gelernter, who, in his 1991 book Mirror Worlds presented what's now called "cloud computing".  2009: REFLECTIONS ON A CRISISDaniel Kahneman, the greatest living psychologist, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the foremost scholar of extreme events discuss hindsight biases, the illusion of patterns, perception of risk, and denial. 2008: LIFE: A GENE-CENTRIC VIEWRichard Dawkins & J. Craig Venter/  It's not everyday you have Richard Dawkins and Craig Venter on a stage talking for an hour. That it occured in Germany, where the culture had been resistant to open discussion of genetics, and at DLD, the Digital, Life, Design conference organized by Hubert Burda Media in Munich, a high-level event for the digital elite—the movers and shakers of the Internet—made the discussion particularly interesting.  

Seminars
Event Date: [ 10.20.13 11:45 AM ]
Location:
United States

In July, 2013, Edge invited a group of social scientists to participate in an Edge Seminar at Eastover Farm focusing on the state of the art of what the social sciences have to tell us about human nature. The ten speakers were Sendhil Mullainathan, June Gruber Fiery Cushman Rob KurzbanNicholas ChristakisJoshua GreeneLaurie SantosJoshua KnobeDavid PizarroDaniel C. DennettAlso participating were Daniel KahnemanAnne TreismanJennifer Jacquet.

HeadCon '13: WHAT'S NEW IN SOCIAL SCIENCE?
 


We asked the participants to consider the following questions: 

"What's new in your field of social science in the last year or two, and why should we care?" "Why do we want or need to know about it?" "How does it change our view of human nature?"

And in so doing we also asked them to focus broadly and address the major developments in their field (including but not limited to their own research agenda). The goal: to get new, fresh, and original up-to-date field reports on different areas of social science.

What Big Data Means For Social Science (Sendhil Mullainathan) | The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion (June Gruber) | The Paradox of Automatic Planning (Fiery Cushman) | P-Hacking and the Replication Crisis (Rob Kurzban) | The Science of Social Connections (Nicholas Christakis) | The Role of Brain Imaging in Social Science (Joshua Greene) | What Makes Humans Unique (Laurie Santos) | Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self  (Joshua Knobe) | The Failure of Social and Moral Intuitions (David Pizarro) | The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change (Daniel C. Dennett)

HeadCon '13: WHAT'S NEW IN SOCIAL SCIENCE was also an experiment in online video designed to capture the dynamic of an Edge seminar, focusing on the interaction of ideas, and of people. The documentary film-maker Jason Wishnow, the pioneer of "TED Talks" during his tenure as director of film and video at TED (2006-2012), helped us develop this new iteration of Edge Video, filming the ten sessions in split-screen with five cameras, presenting each speaker and the surrounding participants from multiple simultaneous camera perspectives.  

We are now pleased to present the program in its entirety, nearly six hours of Edge Video and a downloadable PDF of the 58,000-word transcript.

The great biologist Ernst Mayr (the "Darwin of the 20th Century") once said to me: "Edge is a conversation." And like any conversation, it is evolving. And what a conversation it is! 


(6 hours of video; 58,000 words) 

John BrockmanEditor
Russell WeinbergerAssociate Publisher


Download PDF of Manuscript
 | Continue to Video and Online Text 

 


Sendhil Mullainathan: What Big Data Means For Social Science (Part I)

We've known big data has had big impacts in business, and in lots of prediction tasks. I want to understand, what does big data mean for what we do for science? Specifically, I want to think about the following context:  You have a scientist who has a hypothesis that they would like to test, and I want to think about how the testing of that hypothesis might change as data gets bigger and bigger. So that's going to be the rule of the game. Scientists start with a hypothesis and they want to test it; what's going to happen?

Sendhil Mullainathan is Professor of Economics, Harvard; Assistant Director for Research, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), U.S. Treasury Department (2011-2013); Coauthor, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.
 

June Gruber: The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion (Part II)

What I'm really interested in is the science of human emotion. In particular, what's captivated my field and my interest the most is trying to understand positive emotions. Not only the ways in which perhaps we think they're beneficial for us or confer some sort of adaptive value, but actually the ways in which they may signal dysfunction and may not actually, in all circumstances and in all intensities, be good for us.

June Gruber is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Director, Positive Emotion & Psychopatology Lab, Yale University. 


Fiery Cushman: The Paradox of Automatic Planning (Part III)

I want to tell you about a problem that I have because it highlights a deep problem for the field of psychology. The problem is that every time I sit down to try to write a manuscript I end up eating Ben and Jerry's instead. I sit down and then a voice comes into my head and it says, "How about Ben and Jerry's? You deserve it. You've been working hard for almost ten minutes now." Before I know it, I'm on the way out the door.

Fiery Cushman is Assistant Professor, Cognitive, Linguistic, Social Science, Brown University.


Rob Kurzban: P-Hacking and the Replication Crisis (Part IV)

The first three talks this morning I think have been optimistic. We've heard about the promise of big data, we've heard about advances in emotions, and we've just heard from Fiery, who very cleverly managed to find a way to leave before I gave my remarks about how we're understanding something deep about human nature. I think there's a risk that my remarks are going to be understood as pessimistic but they're really not. My optimism is embodied in the notion that what we're doing here is important and we can do it better.

Rob Kurzban is an Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania specializing in evolutionary psychology: Author, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite.


Nicholas Christakis: The Science of Social Connections (Part V)

If you think about it, humans are extremely unusual as a species in that we form long-term, non-reproductive unions to other members of our species, namely, we have friends. Why do we do this? Why do we have friends? It's not hard to construct an argument as to why we would have sex with other people but it's rather more difficult to construct an argument as to why we would befriend other people. Yet we and very few other species do this thing. So I'd like to problematize that, I'd like to problematize friendship first.

Nicholas Christakis is a Physician and Social Scientist; Director, The Human Nature Lab, Yale University; Coauthor, Connected: The Surprising Power Of Our Social Networks And How They Shape Our Lives.


Joshua Greene: The Role of Brain Imaging in Social Science (Part VI) 

We're here in early September 2013 and the topic that's on everybody's minds, (not just here but everywhere) is Syria. Will the U.S. bomb Syria? Should the U.S. bomb Syria? Why do some people think that the U.S. should? Why do other people think that the U.S. shouldn't? These are the kinds of questions that occupy us every day. This is a big national and global issue, sometimes it's personal issues, and these are the kinds of questions that social science tries to answer.

Joshua Greene is John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and the director of the Moral Cognition Laboratory in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University. Author, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, And The Gap Between Us And Them.


Laurie Santos: What Makes Humans Unique (Part VII)

The findings in comparative cognition I'm going to talk about are often different than the ones you hear comparative cognitive researchers typically talking about. Usually when somebody up here is talking about how animals are redefining human nature, it's cases where we're seeing animals being really similar to humans—elephants who do mirror self-recognition; rodents who have empathy; capuchin monkeys who obey prospect theory—all these cases where we see animals doing something really similar.

Laurie Santos is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology; Director, Comparative Cognition Laboratory, Yale University.


Joshua Knobe: Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self (Part VIII)  

What is the field of experimental philosophy? Experimental philosophy is a relatively new field—one that just cropped up around the past ten years or so, and it's an interdisciplinary field, uniting ideas from philosophy and psychology. In particular, what experimental philosophers tend to do is to go after questions that are traditionally associated with philosophy but to go after them using the methods that have been traditionally associated with psychology. 

 Joshua Knobe is an Experimental Philosopher; Associate Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Yale University.

We had people interact—strangers interact in the lab—and we filmed them, and we got the cues that seemed to indicate that somebody's going to be either more cooperative or less cooperative. But the fun part of this study was that for the second part we got those cues and we programmed a robot—Nexi the robot, from the lab of Cynthia Breazeal at MIT—to emulate, in one condition, those non-verbal gestures. So what I'm talking about today is not about the results of that study, but rather what was interesting about looking at people interacting with the robot.

David Pizarro is Associate Professor of Psychology, Cornell University, specializing in moral judgement.


Daniel C. Dennett: The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change (Part X)

Think for a moment about a termite colony or an ant colony—amazingly competent in many ways, we can do all sorts of things, treat the whole entity as a sort of cognitive agent and it accomplishes all sorts of quite impressive behavior. But if I ask you, "What is it like to be a termite colony?" most people would say, "It's not like anything." Well, now let's look at a brain, let's look at a human brain—100 billion neurons, roughly speaking, and each one of them is dumber than a termite and they're all sort of semi-independent. If you stop and think about it, they're all direct descendants of free-swimming unicellular organisms that fended for themselves for a billion years on their own. There's a lot of competence, a lot of can-do in their background, in their ancestry. Now they're trapped in the skull and they may well have agendas of their own; they have competences of their own, no two are alike. Now the question is, how is a brain inside a head any more integrated, any more capable of there being something that it's like to be that than a termite colony? What can we do with our brains that the termite colony couldn't do or maybe that many animals couldn't do? 

Daniel C. Dennett is a Philosopher; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Intuition Pumps.


ALSO PARTICIPATING


Daniel Kahneman is Recipient, Nobel Prize in Economics, 2002; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2013; Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Princeton University; Author, Thinking Fast And Slow. Anne Treisman is Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Princeton University; Recipient, National Medal of Science, 2013.


Jennifer Jacquet is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons.


 (click for image gallery)



Out-take from the trailer I made for the 1968 movie "Head" (Columbia Pictures; Directed by Bob Rafelson; Written by Jack Nicholson) 


On the Road
Event Date: [ 6.27.13 10:15 AM ]
Location:
Googleplex, Mountain View, California — June 21-23, 2013
United States

You can answer the question, but are you bright enough to ask it?

James Lee Byars

INTRODUCTION
by John Brockman

The Edge motto, adopted from the artist James Lee Byars' "World Question Center" is "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves". As Wallace Stevens wrote in "Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction" (1942): "The final elegance, not to console / Nor sanctify, but plainly to propound." 

It's the quality of the questions that defines the scientific endeavor, not the answers encrusted in stories and narratives. This year, at SciFoo 2013, Edge presented the opportunity to several of the nearly 300 participants to respond to the following: "What is your question from SciFoo 2013?"  Watch the 8-minute video below for the responses. This is followed by responses to the question "Who and/or what was fresh and new at SciFoo 2013?",  and a photo gallery, which extends to San Francisco the following evening.

But first, what is "SciFoo"?

The annual event is run by three sponsors: O'Reilly Media (Tim O'Reilly is responsible for "FOO", or, "friends of O'Reilly"), Nature Magazine (and their spin-off company, Digital Science), and Google. This year  62% of the participants were new. This approach keeps the event new and fresh every year. The ratio of participants to interesting people? 1-to-1. 

As theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek noted in his report on SciFoo 2007 for Edge:

"SciFoo is a conference like no other. It brings together a mad mix from the worlds of science, technology, and other branches of the ineffable Third Culture at the Google campus in Mountain View. Improvised, loose, massively parallel—it's a happening. If you're not overwhelmed by the rush of ideas then you're not paying attention."

Also, see George Dyson's report on SciFoo 2007Photos and comments on SciFoo2009, and the Edge-SciFoo report on SciFoo 2011

Tyler CowenJoseph "Yossi" Vardi, Carl PageFiery CushmanLee SmolinLinda StonePaul DaviesPaul SteinhardtPeter NorvigRichard PottsSteve FullerStuart Firestein


WHO AND/OR WHAT WAS FRESH AND NEW AT SCI/FOO 2013?"
George DysonEsther DysonSteve FullerStewart BrandPaul Saffo, Coco KrummeJohn Coates

JOHN COATES

A fascinating weekend, with one lingering regret—that I missed Rory Wilson’s talk on the use of accelerometers in free living animals. I had to piece together the gist of his talk from scraps given me by others and, fortunately, by Rory himself. In his work as an animal behaviourist Rory has been using actigraphy and accelerometers attached to animals in the wild in order to monitor continuously their energy expenditure. Beyond this, though, the data Rory has collected has uncovered subtle changes in background movement that actually reflect the animal’s motivational state. This finding is tremendously interesting. As we learn more about the brain, the more we see that it is built primarily to plan and execute movement, that activities we—under the influence of our Platonic heritage—commonly viewed as pure thought in fact have a somatic echo. Some scientists working with actigraphy have even found predictors, tremors if you will, of impending neuro-degenerative disease. But background activity changes that may reflect motivational states? The very possibility should tantalize any behavioural scientist.

COCO KRUMME

Serendipity was at work this weekend: I met perhaps the only other person at scifoo (on the entire googolplex?) with a dumb phone. I stubbornly hold onto mine for the very purpose of serendipity, to dampen distraction. Ziyad Marar and I had a wonderful conversation about habits and human behavior, and soon discovered we have in common 1999-era telephones, as well as a healthy skepticism of social media. I hadn't heard of Ziyad's books (Happiness Paradox, Deception, Intimacy), but I picked up two at scifoo and couldn't put them down: his writing mulls human nature, weaving in literature and philosophy without succumbing to the tired conventions of contemporary science writing. A breath of fresh air.

PAUL SAFFO: Kröpelin's Mysteries of the Sahara

The single most astonishing session for me was Stefan Kröpelin's "Miracle of the Sahara." Kroplin compressed 40 years of research and exploration into a whirlwind tour of the Sahara's mysteries and what it is like to do science there. Summarizing conditions, he noted, "Sometimes, you get stuck hundreds of times per day… and the real problem isn't the heat; it's the cold." The size of the U.S, Kröpelin's Sahara is full of mysteries: Gilf Kebir, a sand plateau atop an ancient fluvial system in Southwest Egypt holds rock art from the middle Holocene, over 10,000 figures in one cave alone. The Wadi Howar was thought by Heroditus to be the source of the Nile; now it is vast desert, but in it's heart is the Ounianga Kebir, a cluster of freshwater aquifer-fed "gravity lakes," and home to seven crocodiles, the remnant of an Ice Age population, now isolated from other crocs by hundreds of miles of searing desert.
 
But the biggest mystery was sitting right in front of Kröpelin as he spoke. It was a chunk of "Libyan Desert Glass," 28 million year-old fused glass the color of pale emerald and the purest natural glass in the world. Discovered by Europeans in 1932, the stuff is strewn across a vast area of desert at the edge of Egypt's great Sand Sea. Kröpelin's chunk looked like a glass meteorite, complete with ablation regmaglypts, suggesting that the glass was created by a meteor strike that liquefied the surface rocks in a process not unlike that which created tektite strewn-fields elsewhere on the earth. Except… no one has found a crater. Perhaps the glass is a radiative melt artifact of a Tunguska-like airburst? Others speculate that it is hydrovolcanic in origin, but no has found a volcanic source. 
 
What we do know is that the Sahara's earliest inhabitants knapped the glass into tools, and that it was prized by the Egyptians—a scarab carved from the stuff is set into a pectoral worn by Tutankhamun. That fact tied nicely with Kröpelin's final and most surprising statement: the origins of the pharonic tradition lie in the Western Desert, not the Nile Valley. And if the Egyptian civilization was born from the Sahara, then by association, Europe's roots are hidden there as well.
 

STEWART BRANDWhat if climate change is good for civilization?

(If it is, it would completely invalidate the first chapter of my Whole Earth Discipline, which spells out how climate change is an apocalypse-in-waiting for civilization. My personal mantra tries to be: "Every day I wonder how many things I am dead wrong about." This might be one of them.)
 
Climate change apparently ignited civilization in Egypt, said Stefan Kröpelin in a small, intense session at SciFoo. His four decades of insanely adventurous researches in the eastern Sahara—where no one goes—show that people lived all over that region when it was a rich savanna filled with game, before 8,000 years ago. In those centuries people avoided the Nile, which was dangerous with floods and fearsome animals.
 
In the period 5300-3500 BCE the Sahara gradually but relentlessly dried up. The people from the desert were forced to take on the Nile, first for farming, soon for a river-taming civilization of such durability that it eventually inspired Greece, Rome, and Europe.
 
Climate change made it happen. The evidence is in the sumptuous cave art at Wadi Sura and the silt of the astonishingly ancient Ounianga Lakes.
 
What is our unthinkably dangerous Nile that climate change might force us to take on? What abilities might we be forced to acquire?

STEVE FULLERHow must we re-orient ourselves to make the most out of seasteading?

At Sci Foo Camp 2013, David Ewing Duncan and Linda Avey presented a very persuasive case for an indefinite expansion of 'seasteading', a term that I had learned about from Duncan in an earlier session on cognitive and moral enhancement by neuroscientific means. I had been already familiar with Peter Thiel's support for a ship floating just beyond US territorial waters near San Francisco Bay that enabled innovators lacking US citizenship to conduct research outside the gaze of American regulators. However, the session enabled me to see that seasteading, far from being a strategy for avoiding inconvenient forms of regulation, on the contrary might be something that states themselves encourage—though perhaps indirectly, depending on the political climate. However, this proposal would make policy sense only on the following condition: The outcomes of the research conducted in these 'ethics-free' zones would have to be made public, with the understanding that no one would be prosecuted, no matter how bad the outcomes are perceived to have been. In other words, we would need to become sufficiently mature to accept the admission of error in pursuit of a good cause as adequate punishment in itself. 

ESTHER DYSON

The most wonderful session I attended—and the most meaningful experience overall—was Michael Chorost talking about his own cochlear implant.  It was what science really is—the response to curiosity.  He told us how it worked, played recordings so we could get some sense of how things sound to people who have an implant.  He passed some samples around the room for us to touch and examine. We talked about learning to hear—and how there's a point in childhood after which it gets harder and harder to learn. We got an understanding of the technology, and also of how the technology changes both individual lives and cultural norms—such as sign language, which may become the language of the poor deaf as the rich deaf start using cochlear implants. In theory they can be covered by Medicare, but somehow the rich seem to get them and the poor don't...  Is that right?

Is there something similar coming for vision? (Of course, this comment—and the session itsel —raises questions and doesn't answer them all; that's the point of SciFoo...)

GEORGE DYSON

This was SciFoo's seventh year, and, in era where the half-life of a conference is measured in years, not decades, it is holding up well. Tim O'Reilly (O'Reilly), Timo Hannay (Nature/Digital Science )and Chris DiBona (Google) have found a formula that works, and are sticking to it. Big Data, once the all-consuming subject, is now just another scientific instrument, like a space telescope or an electron microscope, and the excitement was back to the details of what you can do with it, now that you have it. And how do you encourage scientific thinking in children (and politicians)? Among the people who showed up from left field and stole the show (a regular occurrence at SciFoo) this year was Carmen Medina, who, in her own introductory words, "spent 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency and decided early on that how we form opinions is much more interesting than any particular opinion. Passionate about empowering heretics in the workplace and attacking conventional wisdom. Believe we need entirely new construct for the concept of national security, perhaps abandoning it altogether. Convinced there is worldwide conspiracy for preservation of Mediocrity." Amen!

 
Edge Dinners
Event Date: [ 2.26.13 2:30 PM ]
Location:
United States

Edge Dinner, 2013

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