Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Origins Symposium Part 2 of 5

Today we continue our in our series on last week's Origins Symposium with southwest correspondent, Alaina Levine.

Part 2: Hangin' with Mr. Wilczek

Upon viewing the schedule of speakers, one quickly sees that this truly was an intellectual extravaganza. So as I settled into my chair to listen to the first scientist-only discussions on the afternoon of Friday, April 3, I couldn't mask my elation. But I was especially enthusiastic to discover that Frank Wilczek, 2004 Nobel Laureate in physics and Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT, was to give the opening speech of the Symposium.

I had first met Wilczek a few years ago when he visited the University of Arizona, where I teach and direct a master's program. He was there to give the colloquium, and in speaking with him, I found him to be fascinating, open, and completely approachable. I followed up with him by email to arrange a phone interview about the importance of physics public relations and outreach, two subjects not only important to me, but also, as I found out, to Wilczek as well. We had a great conversation. I stayed in touch.

So I knew I was going to find the experience valuable as soon as Wilczek took the stage. Dressed in regular pants, sneakers, and a blazer over a t-shirt with a google-sponsored event logo, Wilczek began stimulating the audience's brains with "The Big Questions", like "Who's out there?" He postulated that if there is some intelligent life "out there", there could only be a couple of reasons as to why we don't hear from these aliens: Either their stupidity prevents them, or their wisdom dissuades them - perhaps they just don't want us to know they're there.

Moving to what he referred to as the intermediate scale of origins, he asked "can we engineer mind?" and "will the new minds become the best minds?" He also inquired about whether we can engineer "Quintelligence" which uses quantum mechanics to describe quantum computers that can explain quantum mechanics.

On the second day when I entered the conference room, the lectures had already begun. I quickly scanned the room and to my delight I found that the only seat available was next to Wilczek. He had the New York Times in front of him and had just finished the crossword puzzle and was playing KenKen (www.kenken.com), a suduku-derived game that involves arithmetic as well as logic. I myself am addicted to KenKen, so we chatted briefly on the subject.

Wilczek and I hung out all morning. We talked and laughed about questions and discussion points being made by the speakers. I asked him what he hoped to get out of attending the conference. "I'm not sure that I'm hoping to learn anything specific," he said. "I hope to get my mind expanded because we're going to think big and hear a lot of discussions of topics that physicists don't normally hear about." He, like other scholars in attendance with whom I spoke, was excited about the fact that he was surrounded by experts in a multitude of disciplines, including biology, sociology, and paleontology, he said. He looked forward to the potential knowledge he could gain or ember of creativity that could be ignited to help him with his physics, he said.

He hoped that he could spark some creativity in his colleagues' brains. "That's why in my opening talk I tried to pose questions that lots of people could relate to in different contexts," he said, "Questions like Can we engineer mind?…certainly has a physical component, and we want to build the appropriate kind of electronics that enables it and we want to design things in clever ways, but it also has components of how do you take these physical objects we…design well and hook them together, (and) what does it take to marshal a lot of computations together to make thoughts or other useful insights."

Does any of this scare you?, I inquired. "No, it really doesn't," Wilczek said with a laugh." It's awesome,…so in that case it's scary. Maybe a better way to say it is I believe in the future."

Yesterday: The Big Questions, Disagreements and Laughter Amongst Scientists...

1 comment:

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