Category Archives: science philosophy

Brains, guts, health, and consciouness at TED 2014′s Session 5: Us

While most of the speakers I’m mentioning are the ‘science’ speakers in this session, they are more precisely ‘medical science’ speakers which takes me further than usual out of my comfort zone. That said, Nancy Kanwisher, brain researcher, opened the session (from her TED biography),

Using cutting-edge fMRI technology as her lens, Nancy Kanwisher zooms in on the brain regions responsible for some surprisingly specific elements of cognition.

Does the brain use specialized processors to solve complex problems, or does it rely instead on more general-purpose systems?

This question has been at the crux of brain research for centuries. MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] researcher Nancy Kanwisher seeks to answer this question by discovering a “parts list” for the human mind and brain. “Understanding the nature of the human mind,” she says, “is arguably the greatest intellectual quest of all time.”

As many of us now know courtesy of researchers like Kanwisher, the brain has both general purpose regions and specialized regions for perception and complex processing but Kanwisher’s presentation was as much about the process of discovery as it was about the discoveries she and her colleagues have made. She talked about her personal experiences with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as she tested (many times) her own brain first and then spent years looking at grayscale images as she decoded what she was observing and tested over and over and over again.

Next came the ‘gut guy’, or as microbial ecologist Rob Knight’s TED biography describes him,

Rob Knight explores the unseen microbial world that exists literally right under our noses — and everywhere else on (and in) our bodies.

Using scatological research methods that might repel the squeamish, microbial researcher Rob Knight uncovers the secret ecosystem (or “microbiome”) of microbes that inhabit our bodies — and the bodies of every creature on earth. In the process, he’s discovered a complex internal ecology that affects everything from weight loss to our susceptibility to disease. As he said to Nature in 2012, “What motivates me, from a pragmatic standpoint, is how understanding the microbial world might help us improve human and environmental health.”

Knight made the case that our microbes are what give us our individuality by noting that 99.99% of our DNA is the same from one person to the next but out microbial communities vary greatly person to person and the community in your mouth varies greatly from the community on your skin. He and his colleagues are using the information to consider new types of medical interventions. For example, research has shown that giving children antibiotics before the age of six months affects their future health.

Interestingly, we carry about 3 lbs. of microbes individually and Knight and his colleagues are still gathering information about those lbs. He mentioned the American Gut project (and solicited future volunteers from the live audience by mentioning he had just happened to bring 100 kits which were available at his table outside). This project is for US participant only.

Stephen Friend, oncologist and open science advocate was featured next. From his TED biography,

Inspired by open-source software models, Sage Bionetworks co-founder Stephen Friend builds tools that facilitate research sharing on a massive and revolutionary scale.

While working for Merck, Stephen Friend became frustrated by the slow pace at which big pharma created new treatments for desperate patients. Studying shared models like Wikipedia, Friend realized that the complexities of disease could only be understood — and combated — with collaboration and transparency, not by isolated scientists working in secret with proprietary data

Friend has a great name for someone who advocates for transparency and openness. He opened with stories about his work and how he came to be inspired to look for health rather than disease. He noted that for the most part, medical research is focused on the question of what went wrong with a patient rather than asking if healthy people have some sort of natural immunity or protection from cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. Perhaps by examining health people we can find ways to more effectively intervene.

He provided two examples of research that examined natural immunity such as research in San Francisco (California) into why a small but significant percentage of people with HIV never developed AIDS; his other example was regarding research into lipid levels and why some people with high levels never develop heart disease.

I’m a little foggy about this point but I think he made a request for information about these medical phenomena and people from around the world shared their research with him in an open and transparent fashion.

This next bit was clear to me, he and his colleagues are moving to another stage with their research initiative which they have named the Resilience Project; Unexpected Heroes. He too solicited volunteers from the audience. I haven’t been able to locate a website for the project but there maybe some on the Sage Bionetworks website, the organization Friend co-founded. Good luck!

Finally, I wasn’t expecting to write about David Chalmers so my notes aren’t very good. A philosopher, here’s an excerpt from Chalmers’ TED biography,

In his work, David Chalmers explores the “hard problem of consciousness” — the idea that science can’t ever explain our subjective experience.

David Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University. He works in philosophy of mind and in related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. While he’s especially known for his theories on consciousness, he’s also interested (and has extensively published) in all sorts of other issues in the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.

Chalmers provided an interesting bookend to a session started with a brain researcher (Nancy Kanwisher) who breaks the brain down into various processing regions (vastly oversimplified but the easiest way to summarize her work in this context). Chalmers reviewed the ‘science of consciousness’ and noted that current work in science tends to be reductionist, i.e., examining parts of things such as brains and that same reductionism has been brought to the question of consciousness.

Rather than trying to prove consciousness, Chalmers proposes that we consider it a fundamental in the same way that we consider time, space, and mass to be fundamental. He noted that there’s precedence for additions and gave the example of James Clerk Maxwell and his proposal to consider electricity and magnetism as fundamental.

Chalmers next suggestion is a little more outré and based on some thinking (sorry I didn’t catch the theorist’s name) that suggests everything, including photons, has a type of consciousness (but not intelligence).

The beauty of silence in the practice of science

Most writers need silence at some point in their process and I feel strongly that’s true of anyone involved in creative endeavours of any kind including science. As well, it may seem contradictory to some but one needs to be both open (communicative) and closed (silent).

These days in the field of science there’s a lot of pressure to be open and communicative at all times according to Felicity Mellor’s [Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College London] Jan. 15, 2014 blog posting for the Guardian and she feels it’s time to redress the balance (Note: Links have been removed),

Round the back of the British Library in London, a new building is taking shape. Due to open in 2015, the Crick Institute is set to become one of the largest research centres for biomedical science in Europe, housing over 1200 scientists.

The aim is to foster creative and imaginative research through interdisciplinary collaboration and the emphasis on collaboration pervades every aspect of the enterprise, from its joint foundation by six major institutions through to the very fabric of the building itself.

In stark contrast to the hunkered-down solidity of the British Library next door, with its pin-drop silences within, the glass walls and open-plan labs of the Crick Institute are intended to create “an atmosphere that maximises openness and permeability”. In place of the studious silences of the library, there will be the noisy cacophony of multidisciplinary exchanges.

Collaboration is clearly a key component of modern science and the Crick Institute is not alone in prioritising cross-disciplinary interaction. The rhetoric of openness is also widespread, with calls for public engagement and open data further extending the demands on scientists’ communications.

… Last year, Victoria Druce, then a student on the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, interviewed some of the scientists due to move into the Crick and found that they were already getting twitchy about sharing equipment and spoke territorially about their labs.

The unease is about more than territoriality (from the blog posting),

Researchers may quickly find ways to carve up the multidisciplinary spaces of the Crick Institute. But will they ever be able to shut themselves off from all that openness? Where, in these spaces of constant chatter, are scientists supposed to find a place to think?

Historically, the pursuit of knowledge was characterised as an activity conducted in, and requiring, silence, symbolically located in solitary spaces – whether the garret of the writer or the study of the intellectual. Newton was famously reluctant to engage with others and his theory of gravity came to him whilst sequestered in Lincolnshire, remote from the hubbub of London. Darwin, too, withdrew to Down House and held off publishing for as long as he could.

Mellor acknowledges that Darwin and Newton did not live in complete seclusion as there were neighbours, family members, and servants about during their ‘solitary’ sojourns but they still were able to enjoy some solitude where it seems the scientists at the Crick Institute will not (from the blog posting),

… when scientists recount moments of creativity, they frequently allude to periods of solitude and silence. If the aim of research centres like the Crick Institute is to foster creativity, then perhaps silence and withdrawal need to be catered for as well as collaboration and communication.

In response to this perceived need, Mellor and her colleague, Stephen Webster, organized a series of conferences titled, The silences of science, from the conferences’ homepage,

Constructive pauses and strategic delays in the practice and communication of science

The Silences of Science is an AHRC-funded reearch network examining different aspects of the paradox that science depends both on prolixity and on reticence. It seeks to interrogate the assumption that open and efficient channels of communication are always of greatest benefit to science and to society. It aims to remind the research community of the creative importance of silence, of interruptions in communication, of isolation and of ‘stuckness’.

Through a series of three workshops and conferences, the research network will bring together a range of scholars – from literary studies, anthropology, legal studies, religious studies, as well as from the history and philosophy of science and science communication studies – to draw on insights from their disciplines in order to examine the role of silence within the sciences.

Workshop/conference series: 

Conceptualising Silence: 2nd-3rd July 2013, Wellcome Trust. Programme here.

Silence in the History and Communication of Science: 17th December 2013, Imperial College London. (Further details and recordings of talks can be found here.)

The Role of Silence in Scientific Practice: Spring 2014, Imperial College London.

The most recent of the conferences features, as noted previously, audio recordings of some of the talks (from the Silence in the History and Communication of Science webpage),

Silence is often construed negatively, as a lack, an absence. Yet silences carry meaning. They can be strategic and directed at particular audiences; they can be fiercely contested or completely overlooked. Silence is not only oppressive but also generative, playing a key role in creative and intellectual processes. Conversely, speech, whilst seeming to facilitate open communication, can serve to mask important silences or can replace the quietude necessary for insightful thought with thoughtless babble.

Despite a currently dominant rhetoric that assumes that openness in science is an inherent good, science – and its communication – depends as much on discontinuities, on barriers and lacunae, as it does on the free flow of information. …

Brian Rappert (University of Exeter). The sounds of silencing.
Kees-Jan Schilt (University of Sussex), “Tired with this subject…”: Isaac Newton on publishing and the ideal natural philosopher.
Nick Verouden (Delft University of Technology), Silences as strategic communication in multi-disciplinary collaborations within the university and beyond.
Paul Merchant (National Life Stories, The British Library), “He didn’t go round the conference circuit talking about it”: oral histories of Joseph Farman and the ozone hole.
Emma Weitkamp (University of the West of England), Offering anonymity: journalists, PR and funders.
Carolyn Cobbold (University of Cambridge), The silent introduction of synthetic dyestuffs into food in the 19th century
Oliver Marsh (UCL), Lurking nine to five: ‘non-participants’ in online science communication.
Ann Grand (University of the West of England), Having it all: quality and quantity in open science.
Camilla Mørk Røstvik (University of Manchester), The silence of Rosalind Franklin’s Photograph 51
Elizabeth Hind, Reconstructing ancient thought: the case of Egyptian mathematics
Tim Boon (Science Museum) ‘The Silence of the Labs’: on mute machines and the communication of science
Alice White (University of Kent), Silence and selection: the “trick cyclist” at the War Office Selection Boards

Enjoy! One final note, Tim Boon’s ‘Silence of the Labs’ is not to be confused with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Fifth Estate telecast titled Silence of the Labs (mentioned in my Jan. 6, 2014 posting),which focused on opposition to Canadian government initiatives which have forced journalists to send queries for interviews and interview questions to communications officers rather than directly to the scientists and such other measures.

Spirit of the law, the rule of law, Kiera Wilmot, and a science experiment in Florida

It’s tempting to ride my moral high horse regarding the Kiera Wilmot situation but on second thoughts I’ve decided to dismount. For those who are not familiar with the situation, Kiera Wilmot went to her Florida school on Monday, Apr. 29, 2013 and attempted a science experiment—unauthorized and in the school yard which resulted in an explosion that sounded like a firecracker going off. Shortly afterwards she found herself arrested, taken away in handcuffs, and expelled from school. She was charged on two felony charges (I believe) and will be tried as an adult.

As for the experiment, Wilmot brought a plastic bottle to school and, before classes started, decided to pour into it a quantity of household plumbing cleaner (Drano) and added a piece of aluminum foil resulting in smoke and an explosion that bystanders described as sounding like a firecracker. No one was injured and there was no damage. According to all the reports I’ve seen so far, Wilmot gets good grades and has never been in trouble.

Here’s the quote that Kyle Murzenrieder obtained for his Apr. 26, 2013 posting [as far as I can determine the incident occurred on Apr. 29 but, mysteriously, Murzenrieder's posting is dated prior to that) on the Miami (Florida) New Times blog,

"She made a bad choice. Honestly, I don't think she meant to ever hurt anyone," principal Ron Pritchard told the station [local Miami tv station WTSP]. “She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did. Her mother is shocked, too.”

The story has attracted international attention. Richard Luscombe in a May 2, 2013 story for the UK’s Guardian newspaper recounts the events and provides a perspective from a US educator of educators,

The unsupervised experiment on school grounds ended with Wilmot, 16, led away to a juvenile detention facility in handcuffs, expelled and charged as an adult with felony possession of a weapon and making or discharging a destructive device, with a possible penalty of up to 20 years in jail.

The episode has pitted campaigners for a common-sense approach to school discipline against an unrepentant school district that insists it is just following rules, warning parents to advise their children that there will always be “consequences to actions”.

“This is totally insane,” Dr Kathleen Nolan, a lecturer in teacher preparation at Princeton University and author of Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School told the Guardian.

Steven D, a retired lawyer (not licenced to practice in Florida), provides a legal perspective on the charges Wilmot is facing in his May 2, 2013 posting on the Daily Kos,

Was Kiera’s science experiment a “destructive device” that she willingly made, possessed and intended to use as such?

In Florida, a person commits a felony when he or she “willfully and unlawfully makes, possesses, throws, projects, places, discharges, or attempts to make, possess, throw, project, place, or discharge any destructive device.”

No report I’ve seen suggests that her the result of her “experiment” caused any bodily harm to anyone or any property damage.  However, for the sake for argument let’s concede that her science experiment was a destructive device.  That doesn’t end the inquiry, however, regarding her guilt.  You see the law clearly states that for Kiera to be guilty of a felony, she must have both constructed her “destructive device,” and used it, willfully and unlawfully.  In short, the issue of her intent again appears, and it should give any prosecutor pause before pursuing felony charges against this young woman.  Why?  Because she herself has stated she just wanted to see what would happen when she mixed the aluminum foil strips with the chemicals in her toilet cleaner. ….

It’s well worth reading the full piece for the way Steven D. breaks down the language used in the laws under which Wilmot is being charged and examines the case. If I understand his points correctly, the prosecutor will have a very hard time proving there was any attempt to harm or cause damage to anyone or anything, which is what those laws are designed to discourage.

Scientific American is covering this evolving situation in a number of ways. Ashutosh Jogalekar (Ashutosh [Ash] Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science, according to the  description on his blog, The Curious Wavefunction; a member of the Scientific American blog network) wrote an essay on science, scientific query, youth, and Kiera Wilmot titled, America hates science, for Scientific American which was also published on Salon.com (Note: Links have been removed),

She [Wilmot] definitely deserved to be reprimanded and perhaps even punished in some way, maybe by putting her on probation. But when you arrest and expel students for slaking their scientific curiosity, whatever the other consequences of that action, be advised that you are almost certainly sacrificing a valuable scientist at the altar of arbitrarily wielded state and school power.

The latest incident however is only a reflection of, on one hand, the draconian measures that our educational and political institutions are taking to achieve the ostensible goal of “disciplining” American children, and on the other hand, the public obsession with chemophobia and “chemicals”. The absurdly named “chemical free” chemistry sets are already depriving students of the joy of chemistry. When I was growing up my chemistry set had a lot of potentially harmful chemicals like copper sulfate and potassium ferricyanide. On every bottle there were clear labels advising us of the hazards of that particular chemical, antidotes against poisoning and the phone number of the poison center. None of these labels deterred me or my parents, and the set opened up the wonderful world of chemistry to me.

Society’s ardent wish to enforce this principle of maximum precaution – whether it involves reacting to terrorism or to school pranks – is turning schools into straitjacketed environments with armed guards and law enforcement where misdemeanors, pranks and honest mistakes that would have gotten a student detention twenty years ago are leading instead to arrests and expulsions. The school environment in many states has turned into an overactive immune system.

Jogalekar is expressing a sentiment echoed not only by Dr. Kathleen Nolan in Luscombe’s UK Guardian story but elsewhere too, as per Tim Elfrink’s May 2, 2013 posting for the Miami New Times,

As the tale of Kiera Wilmot — the Bartow, Florida student expelled and charged with two felonies over a science project gone wrong — went viral yesterday, a wide movement to support the 16-year-old blossomed from blogs to radio shows to Change.org petitions. Best of all, though, has been a Twitter campaign by scientists and science fans with a simple premise: writing about the craziest stuff they’ve blown up over the years, all in the name of science. [emphasis mine]

The difference, of course, is that they were congratulated on their curiosity or slapped on the wrist, not hit with life-altering felonies.

Andrew David Thaler of the Southern Fried Science blog has started at least one of  the Twitter campaigns (this is the tag: #KieraWilmot) and you can find his commentary about the situation and tweets here on Storify.

While I am in agreement that the response to Wilmot’s ill-advised experiment is an extraordinary overreaction, I can understand the impact the act of setting off an explosive device in a schoolyard a scant two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing incident (April 15, 2013) where four people were killed (including one of the bombers) and many others injured likely had on the authorities. The timing is spectacularly bad and points to a degree of self-absorption that one might expect of a 16-year-old.

That said, I think rather than trying Wilmot as an adult on two felony charges for a science experiment, it might be more useful to involve the community (Wilmot and her family, the other school children, the teachers, the administrators, and the parents) and have them review Wilmot’s actions and determine the appropriate response to her transgression.

Laws are meant to help us maintain social order. It seems to me that the spirit of the laws under which Wilmot is being charged is aimed at protecting the community from violence and harm and that spirit is being violated although authorities may be following the rule of law. Wilmot is a member of the community and she is being harmed by an unthinking response from adults who really should know better.

ETA May 3, 2013 4:45 pm PDT: Here’s a petition you can sign, if you are so inclined: https://www.change.org/petitions/polk-county-state-s-attorney-drop-felony-charges-against-16-year-old-kiera-wilmot

Is a philosophy of the Higgs and other physics particles a good idea?

Michael  Krämer of the RWTH Aachen University (Germany) muses about philosophy, the Higgs Boson, and more in a Mar. 24, 2013 posting on Jon Butterworth’s Life and Physics blog (Guardian science blogs; Note: A link has been removed),

Many of the great physicists of the 20th century have appreciated the importance of philosophy for science. Einstein, for example, wrote in a letter in 1944:

    I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest.

At the same time, physics has always played a vital role in shaping ideas in modern philosophy. It appears, however, that we are now faced with the ruins of this beautiful marriage between physics and philosophy. Stephen Hawking has claimed recently that philosophy is “dead” because philosophers have not kept up with science …

Krämer is part of an interdisciplinary (physics and philosophy) project at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider at CERN [European Particle Physics Laboratory]), The Epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider. From the project home page (Note: A link has been removed),

This research collaboration works at the crossroads of physics, philosophy of science, and contemporary history of science. It aims at an epistemological analysis of the recently launched new accelerator experiment at CERN, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Central themes are (i) the mechanisms of generating the masses of the particles of the standard model, especially the Higgs-mechanism and the Higgs-particle the LHC has set out to detect; (ii) the ongoing research process with special emphasis on the interaction between a large experiment and a community of theoreticians; and (iii) the implications of an experiment that is characterized by its enormous complexity and the need to be highly selective in data gathering. With the heading “Epistemology of the LHC” the research group intends both a philosophical analysis of the theoretical structures and of the conditions of knowledge production, among them the criteria of acceptance, and a real-time monitoring of the ongoing physical development from the perspective of the history of science. Theresearch group has emerged from a collaboration between a High Energy Working group and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Science and Technology Studies and is based in Wuppertal but also involves external members and collaborators.

Krämer shares some of his ideas and the type of thinking generated when physicists and philosophers collide (I plead guilty to the word play; from Butterworth’s Guardian science blog),

… The relationship between experiment and theory (what impact does theoretical prejudice have on empirical findings?) or the role of models (how can we assess the uncertainty of a simplified representation of reality?) are scientific issues, but also issues from the foundation of philosophy of science. In that sense they are equally important for both fields, and philosophy may add a wider and critical perspective to the scientific discussion. And while not every particle physicist may be concerned with the ontological question of whether particles or fields are the more fundamental objects, our research practice is shaped by philosophical concepts. We do, for example, demand that a physical theory can be tested experimentally and thereby falsified, a criterion that has been emphasized by the philosopher Karl Popper already in 1934. The Higgs mechanism can be falsified, because it predicts how Higgs particles are produced and how they can be detected at the Large Hadron Collider.

On the other hand, some philosophers tell us that falsification is strictly speaking not possible: What if a Higgs property does not agree with the standard theory of particle physics? How do we know it is not influenced by some unknown and thus unaccounted factor, like a mysterious blonde walking past the LHC experiments and triggering the Higgs to decay? (This was an actual argument given in the meeting!)

The meeting Krämer is referring to is this one (from the meeting/conference website),

The first international conference and kick-off meeting of the German Society for Philosophy of Science/Gesellschaft für Wissenschaftsphilosophie (GWP) will take place from 11-14 March 2013 at the University of Hannover under the title:

How Much Philosophy in the Philosophy of Science?

Krämer then highlights some of the discussion that most interested in him (Note: A link has been removed),

… It is very hard for a philosopher to keep up with scientific progress, and how could one integrate various fields without having fully appreciated the essential features of the individual sciences? As Margaret Morrison from the University of Toronto pointed out in her talk, if philosophy steps back too far from the individual sciences, the account becomes too general and isolated from scientific practice. On the other hand, if philosophy is too close to an individual science, it may not be philosophy any longer.

I think philosophy of science should not consider itself primarily as a service to science, but rather identify and answer questions within its own domain. I certainly would not be concerned if my own research went unnoticed by biologists, chemists, or philosophers, as long as it advances particle physics. On the other hand, as Morrison pointed out, science does generate its own philosophical problems, and philosophy may provide some kind of broader perspective for understanding those problems.

It’s well worth reading Krämer’s full post for anyone who’s interested in how physicists (or Krämer) think about the role that philosophy could play (or not) in the field of physics.

The reference to Margaret Morrison from the University of Toronto (U of T) reminded me of the Bubble Chamber blog which is written by U of T historians and philosophers of science. Here’s a July 10, 2012 posting by Mike Thicke about the Higgs Boson and his response to philosopher Wayne Myrvold’s (University of Western Ontario) explanation of the statistics claims being made about the particle at that time,

We can all agree that reasoning and decision making in science is complicated. Scientists reason in many different contexts: in the lab, in their published papers, as career-minded professionals, as interested consumers of science, and as people going about their lives. It’s plausible to think that they reason in different ways in all of these contexts. When we’re discussing their reasoning as scientists, I believe distinguishing between the first three contexts is especially important. While Wayne’s explanation of the statistics behind the Higgs Boson discovery is very interesting, informative, and as far as I can tell correct, I think there are some confusions arising from his failure to make these distinctions.

Thicke does advise reading Myrvold’s July 4, 2012 posting before tackling his riposte.

Are we and our world a computer simulation?

There is a fascinating Dec. 10, 2012 news item on Nanowerk about a philosophical question that’s being researched by a team of physicists at the University of Washington (Note: I have removed a link),

The concept that current humanity could possibly be living in a computer simulation comes from a 2003 paper published in Philosophical Quarterly (“Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?“) by Nick Bostrom, a philosophy professor at the University of Oxford. In the paper, he argued that at least one of three possibilities is true:

The human species is likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.

Any posthuman civilization is very unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history.

We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

He also held that “the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”

Here’s what the University of Washington physicists, from the Dec. 10, 2012 University of Washington news release by Vincent Stricherz, which originated the news item,

With current limitations and trends in computing, it will be decades before researchers will be able to run even primitive simulations of the universe. But the UW team has suggested tests that can be performed now, or in the near future, that are sensitive to constraints imposed on future simulations by limited resources.

Currently, supercomputers using a technique called lattice quantum chromodynamics and starting from the fundamental physical laws that govern the universe can simulate only a very small portion of the universe, on the scale of one 100-trillionth of a meter, a little larger than the nucleus of an atom, said Martin Savage, a UW physics professor.

However, Savage said, there are signatures of resource constraints in present-day simulations that are likely to exist as well in simulations in the distant future, including the imprint of an underlying lattice if one is used to model the space-time continuum.

The supercomputers performing lattice quantum chromodynamics calculations essentially divide space-time into a four-dimensional grid. That allows researchers to examine what is called the strong force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature and the one that binds subatomic particles called quarks and gluons together into neutrons and protons at the core of atoms.

“If you make the simulations big enough, something like our universe should emerge,” Savage said. Then it would be a matter of looking for a “signature” in our universe that has an analog in the current small-scale simulations.

Savage and colleagues Silas Beane of the University of New Hampshire, who collaborated while at the UW’s Institute for Nuclear Theory, and Zohreh Davoudi, a UW physics graduate student, suggest that the signature could show up as a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays.

In a paper they have posted on arXiv, an online archive for preprints of scientific papers in a number of fields, including physics, they say that the highest-energy cosmic rays would not travel along the edges of the lattice in the model but would travel diagonally, and they would not interact equally in all directions as they otherwise would be expected to do.

“This is the first testable signature of such an idea,” Savage said.

If such a concept turned out to be reality, it would raise other possibilities as well. For example, Davoudi suggests that if our universe is a simulation, then those running it could be running other simulations as well, essentially creating other universes parallel to our own.

“Then the question is, ‘Can you communicate with those other universes if they are running on the same platform?’” she said. [emphasis mine]

Here’s the citation for and a link to the arXiv.org paper by Beane, Davoudi, and Savage,

Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation by Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi, Martin J. Savage (Submitted on 4 Oct 2012 (v1), last revised 9 Nov 2012 (this version, v2))

Fascinating, yes?

University of Waterloo researchers use 2.5M (virtual) neurons to simulate a brain

I hinted about some related work at the University of Waterloo earlier this week in my Nov. 26, 2012 posting (Existential risk) about a proposed centre at the University of Cambridge which would be tasked with examining possible risks associated with ‘ultra intelligent machines’.  Today (Science (magazine) published an article about SPAUN (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network) [behind a paywall])and its ability to solve simple arithmetic and perform other tasks as well.

Ed Yong writing for Nature magazine (Simulated brain scores top test marks, Nov. 29, 2012) offers this description,

Spaun sees a series of digits: 1 2 3; 5 6 7; 3 4 ?. Its neurons fire, and it calculates the next logical number in the sequence. It scrawls out a 5, in legible if messy writing.

This is an unremarkable feat for a human, but Spaun is actually a simulated brain. It contains2.5 millionvirtual neurons — many fewer than the 86 billion in the average human head, but enough to recognize lists of numbers, do simple arithmetic and solve reasoning problems.

Here’s a video demonstration, from the University of Waterloo’s Nengo Neural Simulator home page,

The University of Waterloo’s Nov. 29, 2012 news release offers more technical detail,

… The model captures biological details of each neuron, including which neurotransmitters are used, how voltages are generated in the cell, and how they communicate. Spaun uses this network of neurons to process visual images in order to control an arm that draws Spaun’s answers to perceptual, cognitive and motor tasks. …

“This is the first model that begins to get at how our brains can perform a wide variety of tasks in a flexible manner—how the brain coordinates the flow of information between different areas to exhibit complex behaviour,” said Professor Chris Eliasmith, Director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Waterloo. He is Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience, and professor in Waterloo’s Department of Philosophy and Department of Systems Design Engineering.

Unlike other large brain models, Spaun can perform several tasks. Researchers can show patterns of digits and letters the model’s eye, which it then processes, causing it to write its responses to any of eight tasks.  And, just like the human brain, it can shift from task to task, recognizing an object one moment and memorizing a list of numbers the next. [emphasis mine] Because of its biological underpinnings, Spaun can also be used to understand how changes to the brain affect changes to behaviour.

“In related work, we have shown how the loss of neurons with aging leads to decreased performance on cognitive tests,” said Eliasmith. “More generally, we can test our hypotheses about how the brain works, resulting in a better understanding of the effects of drugs or damage to the brain.”

In addition, the model provides new insights into the sorts of algorithms that might be useful for improving machine intelligence. [emphasis mine] For instance, it suggests new methods for controlling the flow of information through a large system attempting to solve challenging cognitive tasks.

Laura Sanders’ Nov. 29, 2012 article for ScienceNews suggests that there is some controversy as to whether or not SPAUN does resemble a human brain,

… Henry Markram, who leads a different project to reconstruct the human brain called the Blue Brain, questions whether Spaun really captures human brain behavior. Because Spaun’s design ignores some important neural properties, it’s unlikely to reveal anything about the brain’s mechanics, says Markram, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “It is not a brain model.”

Personally, I have a little difficulty seeing lines of code as ever being able to truly simulate brain activity. I think the notion of moving to something simpler (using fewer neurons as the Eliasmith team does) is a move in the right direction but I’m still more interested in devices such as the memristor and the electrochemical atomic switch and their potential.

Blue Brain Project

Memristor and artificial synapses in my April 19, 2012 posting

Atomic or electrochemical atomic switches and neuromorphic engineering briefly mentioned (scroll 1/2 way down) in my Oct. 17, 2011 posting.

ETA Dec. 19, 2012: There was an AMA (ask me anything) session on Reddit with the SPAUN team in early December, if you’re interested, you can still access the questions and answers,

We are the computational neuroscientists behind the world’s largest functional brain model

Existential risk

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

Could computers become cleverer than humans and take over the world? Or is that just the stuff of science fiction?

Philosophers and scientists at Britain’s Cambridge University think the question deserves serious study. A proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk will bring together experts to consider the ways in which super intelligent technology, including artificial intelligence, could “threaten our own existence,” the institution said Sunday.

“In the case of artificial intelligence, it seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price said.

When that happens, “we’re no longer the smartest things around,” he said, and will risk being at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us.”

Price along with Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, and Jaan Tallinn, Co-Founder of Skype, are the driving forces behind this proposed new centre at Cambridge University. From the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk webpage,

Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole. Such dangers have been suggested from progress in AI, from developments in biotechnology and artificial life, from nanotechnology, and from possible extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change. The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake. …

The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk — a joint initiative between a philosopher, a scientist, and a software entrepreneur — begins with the conviction that these issues require a great deal more scientific investigation than they presently receive. Our aim is to establish within the University of Cambridge a multidisciplinary research centre dedicated to the study and mitigation of risks of this kind.

Price and Tallinn co-wrote an Aug. 6, 2012 article for the Australia-based, The Conversation website, about their concerns,

We know how to deal with suspicious packages – as carefully as possible! These days, we let robots take the risk. But what if the robots are the risk? Some commentators argue we should be treating AI (artificial intelligence) as a suspicious package, because it might eventually blow up in our faces. Should we be worried?

Asked whether there will ever be computers as smart as people, the US mathematician and sci-fi author Vernor Vinge replied: “Yes, but only briefly”.

He meant that once computers get to this level, there’s nothing to prevent them getting a lot further very rapidly. Vinge christened this sudden explosion of intelligence the “technological singularity”, and thought that it was unlikely to be good news, from a human point of view.

Was Vinge right, and if so what should we do about it? Unlike typical suspicious parcels, after all, what the future of AI holds is up to us, at least to some extent. Are there things we can do now to make sure it’s not a bomb (or a good bomb rather than a bad bomb, perhaps)?

It appears Price, Rees, and Tallinn are not the only concerned parties, from the Nov. 25, 2012 research news piece on the Cambridge University website,

With luminaries in science, policy, law, risk and computing from across the University and beyond signing up to become advisors, the project is, even in its earliest days, gathering momentum. “The basic philosophy is that we should be taking seriously the fact that we are getting to the point where our technologies have the potential to threaten our own existence – in a way that they simply haven’t up to now, in human history,” says Price. “We should be investing a little of our intellectual resources in shifting some probability from bad outcomes to good ones.”

Price acknowledges that some of these ideas can seem far-fetched, the stuff of science fiction, but insists that that’s part of the point.

According to the Huffington Post article by Lui, they expect to launch the centre next year (2013). In the meantime, for anyone who’s looking for more information about the ‘intelligence explosion’ or  ‘singularity’ as it’s also known, there’s a Wikipedia essay on the topic.  Also, you may want to stay tuned to this channel (blog) as I expect to have some news about an artificial intelligence project based at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) and headed by Chris Eliasmith at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience, later this week.

FrogHeart at the 2012 S.NET conference, part 5: informal public dialogue/science education and transhuman narratives

Anne Dijkstra’s presentation (at the 2012 S.NET [Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies] conference on “Science Cafés and scientific citizens. The Nanotrail project as a case” provided a contrast to the local (Vancouver, Canada) science café scene I wasn’t expecting. The Dutch science cafés Dijkstra described were formal both in tone and organization.  She featured five science cafés focussed on discussions of nanotechnology. The most striking image in Dijkstra’s presentation was of someone taking notes at one of the meetings. By contrast, the Vancouver café scientifique get togethers take place in a local bar/pub (The Railway Club) and are organized by members of the local science community. (There are some life science café scientifique Vancouver meetings which may be more formal as they take place at the University of British Columbia.)

I was quite fascinated to hear about the Dutch children’s science cafés that have been organized by the parents featuring presentations by children to their peers. It’s a grassroots effort/community-based initiative.

The next and final presentation set was when I presented my work on ‘Zombies, brains, collapsing boundaries, and entanglements’. (People at the conference kept laughing when I told them when my presentation was scheduled.) Briefly, my area of interest is in neuromorphic engineering (artificial brains), memristors and other devices which can mimic synaptic plasticity, pop culture (zombies), and something I’ve termed ‘cognitive entanglement’. My basic question is: what does it mean to be human at a time when notions about what constitutes life and nonlife are being obliterated? In addition, although I didn’t do this deliberately, this passage from my Oct. 31, 2012 posting (Part 1 of this series) touches on a related issue,

His [Chris Groves' plenary] quote from Hannah Arendt, “What we make remakes us” brought home the notion that there is a feedback loop and that science and invention are not unidirectional pursuits, i.e., we do not create the world and stand apart from it; the world we create, in turn, recreates us.

I have more about this ‘conversation’ regarding artificial brains taking place in business, pop culture, philosophy, advertising, science, engineering, and elsewhere but I think I need to write up a paper. Once I do that I”ll post it. As for the response from the conference goers, there were no questions but there were a few comments (I’m not the only one interested in zombies and the living dead) and a suggestion to me for further reading (Andrew Pickering, The cybernetic brain: sketches of another future).

Zombies, brains, collapsing boundaries, and entanglements at the 4th annual S.NET conference

My proposal, Zombies, brains, collapsing boundaries, and entanglements, for the 4th annual S.NET (Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies) conference was accepted. Mentioned in my Feb. 9, 2012 posting, the conference will be held at the University of Twente (Netherlands) from Oct. 22 – 25, 2012.

Here’s the abstract I provided,

The convergence between popular culture’s current fascination with zombies and their appetite for human brains (first established in the 1985 movie, Night of the Living Dead) and an extraordinarily high level of engagement in brain research by various medical and engineering groups around the world is no coincidence

Amongst other recent discoveries, the memristor (a concept from nanoelectronics) is collapsing the boundaries between humans and machines/robots and ushering in an age where humanistic discourse must grapple with cognitive entanglements.

Perceptible only at the level of molecular electronics (nanoelectronics), the memristor was a theoretical concept until 2008. Traditionally in electrical engineering, there are three circuit elements: resistors, inductors, and capacitors. The new circuit element, the memristor, was postulated in a paper by Dr. Leon Chua in 1971 to account for anomalies that had been experienced and described in the literature since the 1950s.

According to Chua’s theory and confirmed by the research team headed by R. Stanley Williams, the memristor remembers how much and when current has been flowing. The memristor is capable of an in-between state similar to certain brain states and this capacity lends itself to learning. As some have described it, the memristor is a synapse on a chip making neural computing a reality and/or the possibility of repairing brains stricken with neurological conditions. In other words, with post-human engineering exploiting discoveries such as the memristor we will have machines/robots that can learn and think and human brains that could incorporate machines.

As Jacques Derrida used the zombie to describe a state that this is neither life nor death as undecidable, the memristor can be described as an agent of transformation conferring robots with the ability to learn (a human trait) thereby rendering them as undecidable, i.e., neither machine nor life. Mirroring its transformative agency in robots, the memristor could also confer the human brain with machine/robot status and undecidability when used for repair or enhancement.

The memristor moves us past Jacques Derrida’s notion of undecidability as largely theoretical to a world where we confront this reality in a type of cognitive entanglement on a daily basis.

You can find the preliminary programme here.  My talk is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 in one of the last sessions for the conference, 11 – 12:30 pm in the Tracing Transhuman Narratives strand.

I do see a few names I recognize, Wickson, Pat (Roy)  Mooney and Youtie. I believe Wickson is Fern Wickson from the University of Bergen last mentioned here in a Jul;y 7, 2010 posting about nature, nanotechnology, and metaphors. Pat Roy Mooney is from The ETC Group (an activist or civil society group) and was last mentioned here in my Oct. 7, 2011 posting), and I believe Youtie is Jan Youtie who wss mentioned in my March 29, 2012 posting about nanotechnology, economic impacts, and full life cycle assessments.

A sciences and humanities in Canada spring update from Situating Science

For anyone unfamiliar with the Situating Science ‘cluster’ which brings together the sciences and the humanities in Canada, here’s a self-description from the Spring 2012 newsletter,

Created in 2007 with the generous funding of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Strategic Knowledge Cluster grant, Situating Science is a seven-year project promoting communication and collaboration among humanists and social scientists that are engaged in the study of science and technology. We operate on a hub and spoke model of six nodes spread across the country and explore a set of four interrelated themes. These are: “Science and its Publics”; “Historical Epistemology and Ontology” (including philosophy of science); “Material Culture and Scientific/ Technological Practices”; and “Geography and Sites of Knowing”.

For more information on your local “Network Node” events, video recordings and podcasts, research themes and network, please visit: www.situsci.ca.

I think the most interesting part of the newsletter was the list of upcoming events,

HOPOS 2012

The University of King’s College and Dalhousie University, institutions of the Atlantic Node, are hosting the 9th Biennial Meeting of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science occurring in Halifax, June 21-24th, 2012.
Link:  http://hopos2012.philosophy.dal.ca/ 

VISITING SCHOLAR

The Cluster is pleased to announce Dr. Evelyn Fox Keller as the Cluster Visiting Scholar for 2012-13. Details will be available in coming weeks on our website.

WORKSHOPS

Two major Cluster workshops are planned for early summer 2013. The University of British Columbia will host “Translating Early Modern Science” while the University of Calgary will host “Where is the Laboratory Now?: ‘Representation’, ‘Intervention’ and ‘Realism’ in 19th and 20th Century Biomedical Sciences”.

CONFERENCES

York University will host the Cluster conference on the theme of Material Culture and Scientific / Technological Practices in the summer of 2013. Details will be available in coming months on our website.  

A conference on the theme of “Scientific Communication and its Publics” is being planned in Ottawa for the fall of 2013. The event, co-organized with the Institute of Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa (ISSP) and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) will provide a unique opportunity and platform on which to follow up Cluster activities over the years.  Details will be available in coming months on our website.

I imagine Evelyn Fox Keller’s impending visit is causing great excitement. She is a professor emerita in MIT ‘s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Science, Technology, and Society Program and considered a groundbreaking academic. From her webpage on the MIT website,

Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, Emerita (STS)

Evelyn Fox Keller received her B.A. from Brandeis University (Physics, 1957) and her Ph.D. from Harvard University (Physics, 1963). She came to MIT from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric, History, and Women’s Studies (1988-1992). Professor Keller has taught at Northeastern University, S.U.N.Y. at Purchase, and New York University. She has been awarded numerous academic and professional honors, including most recently the Blaise Pascal Research Chair by the Préfecture de la Région D’Ile-de-France for 2005–07, which she spent in Paris, and elected membership in the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Science. In addition, Professor Keller serves on the editorial boards of various journals including the Journal of the History of Biology and Biology and Philosophy.

Keller’s research focuses on the history and philosophy of modern biology and on gender and science. She is the author of several books, including A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (1983), Reflections on Gender and Science (1985), The Century of the Gene (2000), and Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors and Machines(2002). Her most recent book, The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, is now in press.

That listing of upcoming events gives you a sense of the Situating Science cluster’s scope. Luckily, there are many podcasts and blogs of previous events so you can catch up on anything you may have missed. Here’s a listing of some of the latest presentations which have been made available,

Isabelle Stenger’s “Cosmopolitics: Learning to Think with Sciences, Peoples and Natures”:
Link:
Paul Thompson’s “Ethical Issues in Agriculture: Organic, Locavore and Genetic Modification”
Link:
Gordon McOuat’s keynote address in India for “Sciences and Narratives of Nature: East and West” workshop entitled “Orientalism in Science Studies: Should We Worry?”  (podcast in process)
Link:

Owen Flanagan Jr’s “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized”
Link:
Charis Thompson’s keynote for the “Politics of Care in Technoscience” workshop entitled “The Politics of Care: Beyond Altruism and Anonymity in Biomedical Donation”
Link:

Bernie Lightman’s NS Institute of Science address “Communicating Knowledge to New Audiences: Victorian Popularizers of Science”
Link:

Enjoy!