Welcome to my corner – or loose confederacy of evanescent electrons - of the Science in Society Blog. My primary charges are issues in brain science and engineering, my main areas of research. I’m an assistant professor in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University. Because two departments means only two Christmas parties, clearly not enough, I’m also adjunct in the Department of Neurobiology and Physiology.
My background is quite varied, with degrees in philosophy, computer science, and neuroscience, and on-the-job training in artificial intelligence and mechanical engineering. A highly abbreviated history is that I started out with the aim of making an artificially intelligent system with human-like capabilities, and I’ve settled for the more practical goal of making an artificially intelligent fish. This work is driven by more general questions about the ways in which the body is clever, and how that fits with more readily recognized forms of cleverness that are identified with the nervous system. The body evolved in close coordination with the nervous system over the past 635 million years, so it should be no surprise that there's a lot going on in that interaction. The main approaches I use for working on these problems are biological investigations, computer simulations, and robotics.
I’m excited by this opportunity to blog about issues at the intersection of science and society, as I’ve long been interested in bringing research to the broader community. In the past I’ve done this through an interactive art installation project in LA and through working on projects between Northwestern University and the Shedd Aquarium.
Most recently, I was involved with the Science Entertainment Exchange (SEE). SEE is a new program sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, with the goal of connecting entertainment industry folks (thus far, mostly movie types) with scientists. The idea is that part of the reason there is not much science, or poorly portrayed and inaccurate science, is due to the lack of such lines of communication. Suppose you've got a plotline revolving around an asteroid about to collide with Earth. The first draft has an asteroid that gets a bit closer over more than a century of observation, and then enters the atmosphere only to vaporize in a ball of steam that causes a few extra days of rain in London. Not very interesting – but what is possible? How might we be surprised by a rapidly approaching asteroid that wasn’t detected until it’s almost too late? What would happen if something the size of a typical sports stadium hit the earth? SEE will get you in touch with a scientist who knows about such things.
A few weeks back, the makers of a sequel to TRON wanted to meet with some scientists at their studio in LA to brainstorm about some issues in their draft script. SEE arranged a meeting between the movie makers, myself, and four scientists who work nearby at the California Institute of Technology. Two days before the session we were asked if we could read the draft script. This has to be done under the watchful eye of an assistant to the producer --- such scripts are treated like the Pentagon Papers by the industry. We all agreed to do so (which itself was an interesting experience as I'd never read a screenplay. It's a good way to appreciate how much has to happen to words on a page to get to a movie). In my next posting, I’ll tell you about what happened. I'll also suggest a few interesting ways I think these two very different communities can interact for mutual benefit.