Sunday, 7 July 2013

And everything is possible again - SciFoo13

 The SciFoo 2013 alumini, photographed at Google, June 2013.

This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to Science Foo Camp, or SciFoo in California. Its exactly two weeks since it all came to an end, and its time to write up what stands as one of the more transformational experiences I've had in some time.

SciFoo is the brainchild of O'Reilly, Nature publishing group and Google. It takes place every year at Google's Mountain View headquarters in Silicon Valley, California, where around 200 of the world's preeminent scientists gather together. Nobel Laureates rub shoulders with rocket engineers, roboticists, angel investors, science writers and the odd science celebrity.

This year's SciFoo took place from 21 -23 June.  O'Reilly's famed FOO ("Friends Of O'Reilly") camps are unconferences.  The boundary between audience and participant is dismantled. All attendees are encouraged to organise sessions, speak and actively contribute to others' sessions. On the evening of Friday 21 June, we all gathered at the glittering Googleplex to meet each other, sample Google's famed hospitality and devise the schedule for the next few days.

Summer solstice moon over the Googleplex; Mountain View, June 2013.  Image courtesy of Christopher Reiger

Over the next two days an extraordinary 108 hour-long sessions unfolded on topics as diverse as citizen science, the future of human space exploration, personal genomics, cognitive enhancement, synthetic biology, precision cosmology, drones, the ethics of lab animal research, sentient robots, wearable computing and DNA as data storage.  At any one moment, ten sessions were operating in parallel, meaning the most challenging aspect of being there, was choosing which of the unmissable sessions to go along to.

On the first evening, I got together with Lucianne Walkowicz, one of the astrophysicists who works on NASA's Kepler mission. We both have a keen interest in sonification, and how sound can help us understand scientific data in new and interesting ways. So we proposed a session on Sound in Science. Artist and design researcher, Sara Hendron proposed a session on Art and Science, and invited me to take part. So there was a bit of preparation to do before the sessions got underway on Saturday.

Neuroscience: Where will we be in 2063?

My SciFoo started with a session on the future of neuroscience, led by cognitive scientist, Gary Marcus, Google's director of research, Peter Norvig, and one of the giants of genomic science, George Church.

George Church, photographed at SciFoo, Google, June 2013. Photograph courtesy of Edge.

It was titled, "Where will we be in 2063?", and was extremely well attended, which was hardly a surprise given Church's presence. It was populated by a diverse group of brain researchers, chemists, investors, philosophers and physicists, ensuring extremely lively conversations about how neuroscience could and should evolve over the next fifty years. The catalyst for the session was the dawn of the era of Big Neuroscience. Two major initiatives are happening on both sides of the Atlantic: Henry Markram's one billion euro Blue Brain project, based at EPFL in Switzerland, and the BRAIN Initiative, a US$100 million brain-mapping project. Both initiatives promise to revolutionise our understanding of the brain. Blue Brain's plan is to create a synthetic brain by reverse-engineering the mammalian brain down to the molecular level. The BRAIN Initiative plans to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain.

The session revealed strongly contrasting approaches to how we might best undertake brain research, with pointed criticisms of Markram's plans. I was sitting next to the influential chemist, Lee Cronin, who insisted the best way to understand the brain was to build one from scratch using basic biochemical materials. There were heated debates about what we could possibly learn from models of the brain, which are decoupled from the brain's essential interactions with the rest of the body, and its environment. Some speculated that top-down computer modelling approaches would be useless in explaining some of the hard problems within neuroscience, such as the long-standing 'what is consciousness?' question. This was less of an issue for the chemists, who's line on that was simply: "that's not a hard problem. Consciousness doesn't exist." (Cronin).

The session ended with the obligatory conversation about artificial intelligence, with many pondering the ethics of striving towards hard AI. There could have been a whole session devoted just to that, and the extent of the divisions within the room were starkly revealed, just before the end. One of the conveners of the session, stated, "No one doubts strong AI is possible", to which theoretical physicist Lee Smolin retorted, "I doubt! I don't know what you're talking about!"

Quantum Jumps and Weirdness

Next up for me was Andrea Morello's session, where he promised to show us quantum jumps, and use this as a catalyst to discuss the "weirdness" inherent within quantum mechanics.  As Morello put it: "you often hear that quantum mechanics is weird, counterintuitive, and if you don't think so, you didn't understand it." Morello proposed to "show us something that eminent people (Erwin Schroedinger, for one) thought impossible to see until not long ago: the quantum jumps of a single atomic nucleus, before our eyes. The collapse of the wavefunction live on camera." And that's exactly what he did.

We were not allowed to take photos in any of the SciFoo sessions, which was such a pity. I would loved to have documented not only Morello's video footage of quantum jumps in action, but also the compelling visualisation of the process developed by students at Sydney's College of Fine Arts.  I'll see if I can get Andrea to send over some footage of both, and add it in if I can.

The footage was a trigger to discuss how what we are exposed to in daily life determines our perception of science, and to dig into the notion of "weirdness". The ensuing discussion was fascinating, with several of the scientists in the room failing to understand what was "weird' about Morello's demo.  As Dave Gallo, oceanographer and director of Special Projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, noted the video footage we were looking at showed us an oscilloscope visualising an electrical signal switching on and off. "What's weird about that?" he asked. Bioinformatics expert, Nick Goldman (of DNA as data storage fame), concurred: "this is like closing your eyes and hearing that there are cars passing by the window. Until you look around you can't be sure if you will see a car in your eyeline or not. I want the picture of cars and not cars". We were very close to getting into a deep discussion about quantum computing, with David Lidar, director of the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at UCS, tantalisingly opening his laptop and cueing up some data to show us, but sadly, we ran out time.

Redesigning National Security

SciFoo took place right at the moment where the Edward Snowden saga was at the forefront of everyone's minds, with the revelations of the existence of PRISM and the possible role of technology companies in supplying data to the NSA, causing widespread anger and mistrust. So the last thing I really expected to be doing was taking part in discussion about redesigning national security, post-PRISM. At Google. Lead by two national security analysts.  The session, "How can citizens lead and redesign 21st century national security?" was lead by David Bray, Senior Executive with the U.S. Government, and Jean-Louis Tiernan, Director-general of the academic outreach program of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.   Bray's set-up for the session was: "your smartphone is equivalent to a military supercomputer from the early 1980s. We've already seen citizen-led endeavours assist with crisis response. Maybe the same can be done for "natural security". What information would you be willing to share at a public event as collected from your smartphone, if it meant you were part of a citizen-led endeavour to ensure collective security at an event (eg. next year's Boston marathon?)."

The session was well attended, by a large number of Google employees, physicists, bioinformatics experts and others, and as you'd expect, the discussion was at times heated.  The notion of 'computational justice' was debated at length, with one contributor, who will remain anonymous admitting, "I've worked within the intelligence community most of my life. I've been both a perpetrator and a victim of computational excess." Tim Hubbard, one of the key members of the UK's Human Genome Project, contributed some extremely welcome interjections about the ethics of the security industry engaging in large-scale acts of invasions of privacy. A highlight of the session was the comic intervention from Francois Grey (coordinator of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre at CERN and Citizen Science Advisor at Tsinghua University in Beijing), who at a strategic point close to the end stood up and said, "I work in Beijing and therefore here I represent China, and I'd like to give you both these Chinese USB keys to plug into your computers", and handed both security analysts a USB stick, to much mirth and giggles.

Black Rain by Semiconductor, discussed in the Art and Science session, SciFoo, June 2013. Image © Semiconductor.

Art and Science

Next up was our Art and Science session, led by Sara Hendron, who's a fellow at the MetaLAB at Harvard, and manager of the Abler website.  Sara wanted us to consider what artists and designers have to offer to scientific researchers, and vice versa.  The intention was to explore models for collaborative research that go beyond buzzwords like "design thinking" and beyond the "artist-in-residence," short-term-affiliation model.

The session began with a presentation from Selene Foster and Christopher Reiger, about BAASICS (Bay Area Art & Science Interdisciplinary Collaborative Sessions), a non-profit organisation that brings together regional visual artists, scientists, choreographers, and composers in performances, which explore themes such as mental disorder and human-animal interactions.

I then gave a short talk about the notion of Science As Culture, emphasising the point that the most successful art and science projects cultivate a positive feedback loop, in which works of art lead to new scientific experiments, which lead to new works of art, etc.  I presented a series of projects that my organisation, Lighthouse has been involved with, including work by Brighton-based artists, Semiconductor, who make stunning digital films and installations, which utilise research and data from facilities like NASA's Space Sciences Lab, or the orbiting STEREO satellite.

I focused on 20Hz, which Lighthouse co-commissioned, a depiction of a magnetic storm happening in the Earth's upper atmosphere, caused by the Sun's interaction with our ionosphere.  The sound you hear is VLF waves, captured by a Canadian facility called CARISMA, and converted into audio.  Semiconductor have visualised this sound as vibrating particles. So we can hear and see the Sun interacting with Earth.

Laboratory Life at Lighthouse, February 2011 (from left, Janine Fenton, Margaret Walsh, Kuai Shen). Image courtesy of Lighthouse.

I talked a bit about Laboratory Life, for which we transformed our arts venue into a biotech laboratory, populated by 21 doctors, engineers and artists, who worked in collaborative teams for two weeks. The teams cultivated bacteria in giant agar dishes, bred fruit-flies for astrobiological purposes, and attempted to tattoo DNA. The public could visit the lab and watch the work happen. Science in action had become a cultural process.

I also showed Conrad Shawcross' gorgeous kinetic evocation of string theory, Loop System Quartet:

And finished with a series of works by UK-artist, Katie Paterson, including Ancient Darkness TV. Working with astronomers from the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, Paterson sourced an image of 'ancient darkness' and transmitted it on New York television station for one minute in 2009. It revealed darkness from the furthest point of the observed universe, 13.2 billion years ago, not too long after the Big Bang, and long, long before Earth existed.

Ancient Darkness TV by Katie Paterson. Image © the artist.

Paterson's work expresses a fascination with how we can look back in time through telescopes, to a point before the earth existed. She is intrigued by the fact that there is never a way to directly observe what is going on in the deep universe right now this moment. We can only look into the past.

The discussion after the presentation was extremely engaged, lively and thoughtful. I was particularly grateful for the contributions from Lee Smolin, who knows Katie's work well, and Yasser Ansari (founder of Project Noah), who made some inspiring remarks about the transformative potential of art, within the session. Sara Hendron has also written the session up beautifully over at her blog.

Michael Chorost, trying out Google Glass, SciFoo, June 2013. Image courtesy of Chorost

Living with a Cochlear Implant

Michael Chorost led a great session on what it is like to live with a cochlear implant. This has been nicely reviewed by angel investor, Esther Dyson, over at the Edge, so I'll let her words sum it up:
"The most wonderful session I attended - and the most meaningful experience overall - was Michael Chorost talking about his own cochlear implant. 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."

And everything is possible again

We then moved swiftly on to the first of SciFoo's string of utterly brilliant cosmology sessions.  SciFoo this year was attended by not one, but two, of the 2011 Nobel Physics Laureates - Brian Schmidt, head of the Supernova Search Team at ANU in Australia, and Saul Perlmutter, head of the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Studying several dozen supernovae, they discovered that the Universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating rate, a discovery which came as a complete surprise, even to the Laureates themselves. In one of the more poetic Nobel statements of recent years, the Nobel Committee concluded their announcement of the award by noting: 

"The findings of the 2011 Nobel Laureates in Physics have helped to unveil a Universe that to a large extent is unknown to science. And everything is possible again."

Brian Schmidt (left) and Saul Perlmutter (right) - Photo courtesy of MIT

Schmidt and Perlmutter teamed up again for SciFoo, and brought in fellow cosmologists, Richard Easther, a fellow kiwi, who's head of Physics at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and Paul Steinhardt, Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University, to lead a 'state of play' session on cosmology. The atmosphere in the room was electric. The attendees included several major names within cosmology and physics, including Paul Davies, Lee Smolin and Caleb Scharf, and well as many non-specialists, including biochemist and fellow Nobelist, Kary Mullis.

Schmidt and Perlmutter led a well-paced narrative explaining recent developments of cosmological theory, starting with the consensus view that the universe began some 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang, and thanks to their work, is now found to be expanding at an ever-accelerating rate, presumably due to what we now refer to as dark energy. Easther then contributed an excellent, clear explanation of the theory of inflation, which provides an explanation for the homogeneity and geometry of the universe and the origin of galaxies.

It's not often one is in a position to hear someone say, "and we have one of the major contributors to the theory of inflation in the room with us today", but that's SciFoo in a nutshell.  Thus Easther introduced Paul Steinhardt who established his reputation in physics working on the theory of inflation in the 1980s.  As such, within the physics community, it has caused quite some controversy that it is Steinhardt himself who is now one of the most vocal critics of the theory.  He gave a lucid account of the unresolved issues that inflation gives rise to, and the conundrums which physicists have yet to be able to explain, most particularly the multiverse problem. Steinhardt in the past has described the multiverse as, "a dangerous idea that I am simply unwilling to contemplate".

One of my nicest SciFoo moments was being able to ask Steinhardt to introduce his explanation for how the universe originated, which does away with the multiverse problem. This of course leads us squarely to the ekpyrotic, or cyclic, models of cosmology, for which Steinhardt is one of the leading advocates. The cyclic theory of the universe is a radical extension of Big Bang cosmology, in which the evolution of the universe is periodic and the key events shaping the large scale structure of the universe occur before the Big Bang. Steinhardt set out the cyclic theory, paying particular attention to one of my favourite variants, the Big Bounce.

Having basic cosmology explained by the people who actually wrote it was pretty special.
Noise, Strings and Glissandi

After dinner it was time for my Sound in Science session.  In this, I asked how can hearing a star, a quark, or even the Higgs boson might help us understand these phenomena better? What can listening to scientific data tell us that looking can not? Can experiencing scientific events as sound give us a more intuitive understanding of the data? The session proposed to explore the way that both scientists and artists are working in hand in hand to give us auditory encounters with some of the most fascinating scientific research being undertaken today, Just as the cartographers of the past worked hand-in-hand with artists who illustrated and interpreted the new worlds they discovered, our Universe, on the smallest and largest scales, is being visualised and sonified by artists and musicians today. As the Nobel Physics Laureate, George Smoot III has said, if - as Kepler and Pythagorus - suggested, "the universe is, at some level, music, then it seems only natural that we should study it with musical tools of thinking." Spanning radio astronomy, helioseismology, and nanotechnology, this session featured everything from the real music of the spheres, to the sounds of the charismatic mini-fauna of the quantum world.

I began by giving an overview about how we can sonify radio signals from astronomical sources to effectively 'listen to space', something I've spoken about before:

I also talked about UK artists, Caroline Devine, who's recent work, 5 Minute Oscillations of the Sun uses the sound waves we can detect through helioseismology, a field of astrophysics that which studies the sound waves which resonate through the blazing hot gases of the Sun. Devine worked with a research facility called BiSON based at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Birmingham. BiSON operates a network of six remote solar observatories which generate data which Devine used within her work. Devine took the data and "sped up" the frequencies one million times so that they corresponded with the human hearing frequency range. She made tones at those frequencies with a tone generator. All the overtones that can be heard within the piece relate to natural resonances present within the sun's interior.

Lucianne Walkowicz

Astrophysicist, Lucianne Walkowicz, then outlined a slightly different, but related, approach to listening to stars. Walkowicz is a member of NASA's Kepler Mission, which until it's recent troubles, was the astronomical community's key planet-hunting tool.  But Walkowicz is also an artist, and uses the data she collects from the Kepler satellite to create compositions. She takes data and searches for which frequencies are present at different times, then scales them to frequencies the human ear can hear, using a sine-wave generator. She then creates tones that change with time to represent how the frequencies in the star are changing.  She explains her process in detail, and presents samples of her compositions in this piece here, for TED.

One of the magical things about SciFoo is the conversations that happen serendipitously during breaks, or on the Google bus that took us from the hotel to the Googleplex. I had one such discussion with Janna Nawroth, the creator of this extraordinary nano-scale, jellyfish:

She spoke about the role of sound in neuroscience research. It was such a fascinating tale that I asked her to recount for our session. Here it is again, in her own words.

"Audio monitoring can be used in intracellular recordings within neuroscience. Here, a researcher attempts to penetrate, or break via suction, a nerve cell within a tissue using a microelectrode, so that the transmembrane voltage (voltage difference between inside and outside of cell) can be measured. Rapid changes of the transmembrane voltage are known as action potentials or neuronal firing and serve for signalling information in the brain. It is a major challenge to both get the electrode near/into the cell and make sure the cell is healthy. Both can be aided by the nature of current or voltage signals measured between electrode tip and a reference electrode in the tissue bath. The amplitude of the electrical signal depends on tissue resistance and varies as the tip approaches a cell (which represents high electrical resistance). Thus, by converting signal amplitude into an audio pitch, the investigator can hear when a cell is approached. The signal changes again when the cell is penetrated or when the electrode connects to it via a membrane seal. Once continuous with the intracellular compartment, the electrode will register action potentials, which can be heard as a "click" sound. Frequency and distribution of those spikes can be used as indicators for cell type, health and physiological state." 

"Audio can also assist *extracellular recordings*. Here, basically a wire is stuck into the tissue to pick up action potentials generated in the surrounding of the wire. Oftentimes signals from several neurons  can be picked up, giving an idea of global neuronal activity in the tissue. These signals are much weaker than those recorded from inside a cell and don't allow for the same degree of analysis; however, they allow to see more than one cell at a time. These signals can be converted into audible clicks. During the session we listened to the click sounds of extracellular recordings of the brain. They were artificially modulated in pitch to indicate the firing of individual neurons."

Nawroth also showed how neuronal activity can be sonified through music.  It was a fascinating contrast with the work Lucianne and I presented.

Last up was Ido Bachelet from the Institute for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials, Bar-Ilan University in Israel. As well as working in biotech, Bachelet describes himself as "a composer of music for piano and molecules". He gave a remarkable account of how DNA sequences could be used to generate music. This TEDMED talk gives a great overview of his work and his approach to working with nano-materials:

After an an amazing evening of conversations, and a brief sleep, it was straight back into the fray the following day.

Temporal Naturalism

My day started with two fascinating cosmology and philosophy sessions, both of which explored the nature of time.  The first was entitled 'Temporal Naturalism', and was lead by theoretical physicist, Lee Smolin, who has recently published the controversial book, Time Reborn.

Lee Smolin, photographed at SciFoo, Google, June 2013. Photograph courtesy of Edge.

He was joined by philosophers, Adina Roskies and Fiery Cushman, for a session which attempted to build a somewhat unlikely bridge between between cosmological theories of time and the philosophy of mind.  Smolin's introduction to the session asked, "can we have a temporal naturalism in which laws evolve and the future is to some extent open? Does naturalism commit us to the strong AI hypothesis or could we come to understand qualia as real and the brain as a physical system that is, however, not isomorphic to a digital computer running an algorithm?"

My early academic training was in philosophy of mind, so I was fascinated to see qualia - a term which refers to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience, the "what it's like" of, for example, redness or pain - pop up in this context. I was intrigued to understand how qualia could possibly relate to notions of cosmological time, so I attended this session with great interest.  As did physicists Paul Steinhardt, Saul Perlmutter, and Andrea Morello, as well as a smattering of others.  Smolin began by setting out the philosophical framework by which we could discuss this unusual idea, and outlined two conceptions of time:

i) Timeless Naturalism
This is the orthodox view within physics, whereby the experience of time is an illusion. As Einstein noted, "the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." The fundamental description of the world is in the subatomic world, and as Andrea Morello notes, "quantum mechanics is completely deterministic. Up until the measurement".  As quantum mechanics is deterministic, the future is entirely predictable, and therefore the notion of time is redundant. If you know the laws of physics, you can understand history, and to a certain extent, predict the future.  The problem as Smolin sees it, is that the present moment, qualia, and free will, have trouble fitting into this conception of the world. So Smolin proposes an alternative:

ii) Temporal naturalism
In this view, what is real is the present moment. Some things persist, but what is really real, exists in the present. There is no place for laws of nature that contradict the notion of the present. Among the things which exist in the present are records of past observations. The past is a sequence of 'present moments'. He asked:
- is it cogent to have a naturalism that is 'presentist'?
- does this make it possible for a philosophy of mind where qualia are properly real, as argued by philosophers, Thomas Nagel and Galen Strawson?
- can there be a view of naturalism where qualia are as real as electrons?

And so ensued a fascinating discussion which immediately began with expressions of skepticism by the assembled physicists, who couldn't understand how qualia could possibly pose such a major problem.

The two standard arguments which are used by philosophers to try and convey the problem of qualia are the zombie argument and the Knowledge argument, developed by Frank Jackson.  Adina Roskies did her best to try and convince the physicists with the zombie argument , but to be honest, I think we probably needed to deploy the famous thought experiment from the Knowledge argument. My artistic group, r a d i o q u a l i a, did a project about this in 1998, so I'm quite fond of it.

To further the Knowledge argument, Jackson invented a fictitious character called "Mary", a colour scientist who was imprisoned in a black and white room.  Raised from birth in the black and white room, Mary lacks any knowledge of 'what it is like' to have experiences of colour. But she is a brilliant colour scientist who knows everything there is to know about the science of colour. She has just never experienced it. Once she leaves her black and white room, and experiences colour for the first time, does she learn anything new?  Does her first encounter with "redness" give her any new information about red? If it does, then there is some knowledge about human colour vision she did not have prior to her experience of it, and therefore, not all knowledge is physical knowledge.  The thought experiment, was conceived to elucidate the Knowledge Argument, a rebuttal against 'physicalism', the philosophical view that all factual knowledge can be formulated as a statement about physical objects and activities. The Knowledge argument states that physicalism is false on the ground that there exist facts that cannot be known solely in virtue of knowing all the physical facts. That is, experiences of colour, pain or happiness (qualia), can not be known simply by possessing physical facts about these properties.

Even if an adequate explanation of qualia been provided, Steinhardt and Perlmutter weren't having any of it. Steinhardt took the traditional skeptical view that the problem of qualia will be solved when we obtain more knowledge of the processes which occur in the brain.  The standard physicalist rebuttal is that qualia don't pose a deep philosophical problem; we just lack adequate explanatory data at the moment. Steinhardt went as far as saying that qualia are "a parochial problem of biology that can't possibly effect the laws of nature."

A debate about how this could relate to cosmological time ensued, in which Smolin frequently expressed astonishment that his colleagues from physics found it so hard to accept that qualia create a fundamental challenge to the traditional view in physics that time, inseparable from space, doesn't exist as an independent aspect of reality.  I think Smolin's view is that if qualia are really real, they reveal a fundamental truth about time, which is that there is a present. And if there's a present, then time exists as a fundamental aspect of reality, independent of space.  This is an idea, Smolin writes about at length in Time Reborn, and an idea we returned to in the next session.

Time Before the Big Bang

In the "Time Before the Big Bang" session, Smolin and Steinhardt set aside their differences to delve deeper into the ideas Steinhardt introduced in the previous day's cosmology session.

Paul Steinhardt, photographed at SciFoo, Google, June 2013. Photograph courtesy of Edge.

Once again, the room was packed with a combination of experts, including Paul Davies and Richard Easther, and curious onlookers. Steinhardt began by further explaining why he's currently advocating for a Big Bounce cosmology, in which 'bangs' happens cyclically, and therefore time exists before what we have come to refer to as the Big Bang.  He started out by outlining that present orthodox views of the universe, including the theory of inflation lead to the multiverse problem. He contended that there are three basic responses from the cosmology community to the multiverse problem:

i) I don't care
ii) Something will come along to solve it
iii) There's flaw with our models, and we need to look at other ideas

Steinhardt places himself in the third category. The Big Bounce theory enables for the flattening and smoothing of spacetime, which we see in observational data, to occur over time periods far greater than Big Bang cosmology. He reminded us that the Big Bang is of course a radical idea, because it is a violation of unitarity.  The Big Bounce enables us to connect the late history of the universe with its early history.  In the Big Bounce, dark energy plays a key role in setting up the cycles. It drives each bounce, and then decays.  It is reminiscent of the idea of Eternal Inflation. But for a theory to work, it must be 'geodesically complete'. To put it simply, it has to have a beginning as well as an end. Steinhardt contends that inflation is 'geodesically incomplete' because it doesn't adequately describe a beginning.  Paul Davies noted that the Big Bounce Theory seems remarkably like the old Steady State Theory, the prevalent view before evidence of the Big Bang was discovered in 1964. Steinhardt (somewhat surprisingly) agreed that it is an articulated and evolved theory that builds on the Steady State Theory and takes it in new directions.

Smolin picked up this by reminding the room that there are thirty parameters in the Standard Model - our best explanation for the formation of matter in the universe - which have been added "by hand" so that theory agrees with experiment.  This, Smolin contends, is suggestive of fundamental flaws in the model.  It should be noted that most physicists would contend that, as Richard Easther puts it, "the parameters are not added 'by hand' - they are things like the masses of fundamental particles, which typically have finite, non-zero values. So the numbers exist if the particles exist."  But back to the session: Smolin contended that string theory has failed because of its infinite variations, so we now need a new theory which explains what happened, which is testable.  So far, so familiar.

Smolin then outlined his radical theory of Cosmological natural selection. Can we use the notion of natural selection - Darwin's big idea - in cosmology?  Is a process analogous to biological natural selection occurring at larger scales?  And if so, could the laws of physics themselves by subject to evolution? Have the laws of physics evolved over time? There's no evidence that there's been any evolution in the laws of physics since the Big Bang. So, if evolution has taken place, it must have done so in time before the Big Bang.  Smolin then deepened the analogy with population biology, by stating that "reproduction" on a cosmological scale takes place through the Big Bounces Steinhardt had outlined.

Smolin's theory - outlined in The Life of the Cosmos, states that new universes are born when black holes forms in our universe. A collapsing black hole causes the emergence of a new universe on the "other side". Each universe thus gives rise to as many new universes as it has black holes. The genes within cosmological natural selection, are the types of matter explained in the Standard Model.

This line of thinking provoked heated discussion within the room, and some visible discomfort from some of the physicists, notably, Easther. It is an unease, which it should be said, is probably widely shared.  Whilst there was no resolution by the time we got to the end of the hour, it was a thoroughly stimulating discussion.

One of the attendees of the cosmology sessions, and perhaps one of the most popular SciFoo campers, was former CIA analyst, Carmen Medina. She noted afterwards, "one thing I found quite reassuring at SciFoo was the general cheerfulness of the cosmologists".  Publicly, this was very true. The cosmologists were genial, cheery and warm. But privately, several of them intimated their deep concerns about the state of play, the enormity of the challenges, and extent of divisions within the field.  One noted, after the Time Before the Big Bang session, that it may be another hundred years before we arrive at the next paradigm-changing breakthrough in cosmology.


It is these kinds of conversations which are the real currency of SciFoo, and some of the best experiences I had during those intense three days were in the social sessions, or over dinner and lunch.  Particularly memorable were wonderful discussions with, among others: futurist, Paul Saffo, NASA rocket scientist, Harold White,  co-founder of the amazing DIYBio lab, BioCurious, Raymond McCauley, AI researcher, Yoni Donner, and John Sutherland, who studies the chemical origins of life. I also loved spending time with some of the people that I've already mentioned, including Lucianne Walkowicz, Lee Cronin, Janna Nawroth, Yasser Ansari, Ido Bachelet, and Tim Hubbard. I'm indebted to the cosmologists, Brian Schmidt, Richard Easther and Lee Smolin, for being so generous with their time, and so open to curious questions from the laity.

Some of the folks from Digital Science, co-organisers of SciFoo 2013.

Huge kudos too goes to the Digital Science crew, especially Alan Hyndman and Jean Liu, for doing such a brilliant job of making sure the social time that we had together was as fabulous as possible. Seeing a bunch of immanent scientists enthusiastically tackling 'Hey Jude' well past midnight at a local dive bar in Sunnyvale was quite something, and entirely down to Alan and Jean. 

The Googleplex

Google, SciFoo, June 2013.

The environment in which all of this was happening, Google, obviously deserves to be mentioned. This has been written about at length by others, notably Richard Easther at his blog and Bora Zivkovic at his, so I'll let them articulate just how strange and wonderful it was to be at the Googleplex.

Sergey Brin in Glass, SciFoo, June 2013.

I would add that it was distinctly odd being in the same space as so many people wearing Google Glass. Chief amongst these was Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, and inventor of Glass (pictured above). But there were many Google researchers who wore Glass continuously throughout SciFoo. Having tackled Google chairman, Eric Schmidt on the privacy implications of Glass earlier this year on BBC's Start the Week, it was interesting being in a context where I got to see the devices being used so widely.  I have to say, seeing people wearing Glass up close didn't make me feel personally any less queasy about the potential the device has to disrupt and shape social interactions, something Mark Hurst has written cogently about. It was striking that whilst photography was banned within the sessions, the Glass-wearers did not remove their Glasses, nor asked the participants if it was OK that they wore them, at least during the sessions I attended. There are uncomfortable questions about what constitutes acceptable social behaviour of the wearers of Glass, and how they interact with the rest of us, which need to be debated and discussed before I'd feel relaxed about having this device widely used within society.

But that aside, it should be stressed that generally-speaking, Google were amazing hosts, offering us generous hospitality at every turn. All of the Google staff I met were welcoming, and all had fascinating stories to tell of their own work and research.

A dozen conferences in one ...

SciFoo session, June 2013.

At the closing session of SciFoo, a handful of volunteers reported back on their favourite SciFoo experiences. I felt I'd been to one of the best conference I'd ever been to in my sessions, but in the reporting back, it became clear that there had been at least ten parallel conferences taking place, which were all equally compelling.  One of the senior scientists who reported back summed up the mood in the room, by stating that SciFoo had been the best professional experience of his entire career.  That rang true for many of us.

Huge thanks to Digital Science, Nature, O'Reilly and Google for their hospitality and for designing such a vivid, hypnagogic, intellectual ride.

And everything is possible again.

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