Sunday, April 24, 2011

NAS Kavli Frontiers Meeting

NAS/NAE Frontiers meetings are truly exciting, drawing very creative people from various sciences, and putting together a few select talks that never fail to generate unbridled questions or suggestions from the audience. I was at the NAE Frontier's meeting in 2002 (held over from fateful Sept 2001, my flight from Dulles to LA on Sept 12 cancelled). I was glad to be back at the NAS Kavli Frontiers meeting at Irvine a few days ago.

One session was on The Creative Brain on how brain controls behavior, in particular, creativity. Beversdorf introduced the session and discussed relationship between creativity and neurological conditions as well as possible brain mechanisms. Dr. Ganesan (real Dr kind) discussed relationship between creativity and pathological conditions including psychosis, schizophrenia and insanity, and presented evidence of a link via chemistry, biology and evolution. (I remember a gem about schizophrenia being defined on basis of language, need to follow up). Beeman gave an engaging talk (using puzzles!) about processes and neural activity leading to insights, and their modulation by mood and attention. See connection between Aha moments, problem solving skills and cognitive activity. Audience had questions about parallels with other animals. I liked this session because there is a lot of pop theories about creativity and drugs, or tortured artists, or genius, but here were serious scientists doing the hard job of trying to really understand the underlying connections. Brain and its dynamics is one complicated system! But we humans really need to understand it. I wondered what will be a challenge in the spirit of the Human Genome project or the Manhattan project in this area: map the 100B neuron graph or pick one Brain area and understand its function? There were many other sessions of similarly high quality of discourse: freshwater supplies of the world, causes of extinction in very large and short scales, biomimetic materials, organic drug synthesis, genetics, quantum, and so on. Fantastic collection.

There were more attendees than speakers, so there was a poster session to bring out latent exciting research. My favorite poster was by a population biologist that presented research on migration patterns in ants. Apparently this takes place with a leader who repeatedly schleps between the old and new location, recruiting one ant after another for the tandem walk.

My talk was in a session on Algorithms and Big Data sets --- one of the two CS sessions --- with Asu Ozdaglar (spoke about social networks and strategies, gave an interesting example of herding behavior) and Ramesh Hariharan (spoke about genomics with minimalist slides, presented an interesting probabilistic string problem and variations on Burrows-Wheeler indexing, and made a nice case for faster algorithms using smaller memory since both these resources actually cost dollars in the cloud computing era). I spoke about CM sketch and streaming and enjoyed myself. Scientists are interesting. After my talk, one of them told me, "We should do a psychoanalysis of you", and another said, " We should sequence your genome". :)

One of the great things about Frontier meetings is the discussions over meals. I found out about this project to mark the spots where we bury nuclear waste using some universal language so we leave clues that will be understood say 1000's of years from now so archeaologists don't end up digging these sites when their institutional knowledge vanishes (we know how this expt worked out for Pyramids). And there was a discussion about tectonic plates moving in CA region and I wondered if we will develop the technology to get down there and grease the plates so they slide smoothly and more harmlessly. Scientists at that table liked at me like what is this Engineer doing here.

Finally, organizational issues. There was a powerful presentation from Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) on bilateral collaborations between India and US. NAS and Kavli Foundation seem to be doing an excellent job of Frontiers meetings. A couple of suggestions:
  • Have a blogger at each of these meetings to disseminate informal description of these talks to the larger audience.
  • Kavli Foundation seems to be supporting research in Sciences with awards. Start an award for CS. Start an award for CS. Start an award for CS.
Finally, Raissa D' Souza and Edward Patte co-chaired the meeting and did the hard job of organizing it . As I discovered, Raissa -- a broad thinker and researcher --- and I are less than 2 hops away via multiple paths related to work!

On the left, chemical formula I havent seen in a while. Below, the tandem ants.
ps: It was fun to meet physicist Jocelyn Monroe who was looking for a billion hours of computing for free. Here it is.



Anonymous proaonuiq said...

“I wondered what will be a challenge in the spirit of the Human Genome project or the Manhattan project in this area: map the 100B neuron graph or pick one Brain area and understand its function?”

In fact there are some projects which are similar, at least in ambition and spirit, such as the Human Connectome project ( ), the Blue Brain project ( ) or the Genes to cognition project ( ).

Nice links on creativity. Thanks for sharing !

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