Friday, November 28, 2008

Second Life for Virtual Conferences

Continuing the theme I blogged about recently (see Second Life for Science and Scholarship), here is an example of a virtual conference that will be held in Second Life:

Virtual Conference on Climate Change and CO2 Storage

The organisers of this particular conference have an interest in getting the conference delegates to the "venue" with the minimum of travelling, so organising a virtual conference is the obvious choice.

The trend towards having virtual conferences is in its early stages, but there will be a lot more of this sort of thing in the future. There are many conferences that you would like to attend in person, but which would involve a lot of travelling/expense/fatigue/etc so you don't bother going. I can think of many annual conferences that fall into this category for me, but then I hate travelling. Perhaps there could be some sort of hybrid real/virtual conference to allow such people to attend conferences that would otherwise be difficult to attend. Of course, a purely virtual conference would be much easier to organise, and would present a very low barrier to attendance.

Currently, the main inhibiting factors working against the adoption of virtual conferences are unfamiliarity with the possibilities offered by the virtual medium, low quality of virtual reality compared to real reality, lack of communication cues that are only available in interactions between real humans, and so on. I would have thought that all of these inhibitors would reduce with time, so virtual conferencing will inevitably take off sooner or later.

The so-called "conference call", where multiple participants connect their telephones to have a multiway conversation (if it works at all!), will seem positively archaic in comparison with virtual reality.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mathematica 7

Mathematica 7 is released today, and its new features are summarised here. Hang on! I haven't yet mastered all of the new features that were added in Mathematica 6 (see here).

The Mathematica "universe" is growing so large that I find that there is a dynamic equilibrium between the things that I learn about it and the things that I forget, so I can never hold it all simultaneously in my head. I wonder if anybody understands it all.

Anyway, for those of you who don't already know, Mathematica is a "tool of thought" that raises your consciousness to levels that you didn't think were possible. But it does require a lot of practise to become a master of this art.

Update (20 November 2008): Something that caught my eye in the list of new features of Mathematica 7 was "Multicore parallelism standard with zero configuration on all versions of Mathematica" (see here). What this means is that when you run Mathematica 7 on a multicore computer (these days, all new computers are multicore) it can parallelise across the cores. In the basic version of Mathematica 7 you can have a maximum of 4 cores running in parallel (see here), which allows you to have 1 master and 3 slave processes, which gives a useful degree of parallelism straight out of the box. This parallel processing capability will be very useful when applied to the image processing capabilities of Mathematica 7 (see here).

Update (24 November 2008): It just keeps getting better! Running Mathematica on your own personal super-computer (for a reasonable cost, that is) will be reality not that far in the future judging by the following announcements: Update (2 December 2008): Some gratuitous showing off of the image processing capabilities of Mathematica 7 has been published at The Incredible Convenience of Mathematica Image Processing on the Wolfram blog.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Multiverse

Discover Magazine has published a very useful article on the multiverse entitled Science's Alternative to an Intelligent Creator: the Multiverse Theory. The article is entirely non-technical, but it is well written and it shows how the various aspects of physics which are relevant to cosmology are interrelated. It is a good read that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the big picture.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Adopt a Book

The British Library has set up an Adopt a Book scheme in which you select a book to "adopt", provided you make a donation in support of the British Library's book conservation programme.

The benefits of adopting a book are tied to the size of your donation, and a cumulative list is as follows:

£25+: An attractive personalised certificate recording the beneficiary’s name and details of the book
£75+: A voucher for a public tour of the British Library for two people
£150+: A bookplate containing your personal dedication added to the book
£250+: An invitation for two people for special behind-the-scenes tour of the conservation studios, including the chance to ‘meet’ your book
£500+: The addition of the your name on the Adopt a Book Benefactor List in the British Library, and acknowledgement in the Annual Report
£1,000: If you would like to adopt a book which doesn’t appear on the list, we can offer a ‘choose your own book’ option for gifts of £1,000 or more. You will also enjoy all of the benefits listed above.

Amongst the 200 books that are currently available for adoption are some of your favourites, ranging from the profound "Philosopiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" (3rd edition, 1739) by Sir Isaac Newton, to the tedious "A Law Dictionary" (1839) by John Bouvier. They even offer a list of gift ideas for Christmas which includes (for the children) "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (1908) by Lewis Carroll and "Aesop's Fables" (1666) by Aesop, and the venerable (take one average-sized cow, and stew it for a week) "Mrs Beeton’s Family Cookery and Housekeeping Book" (1907) by Mrs Beeton.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Proof by Computer

The Notices of the American Mathematical Society has published A Special Issue on Formal Proof in mathematics, which is freely available online. There is a report on this by PhysOrg at Proof by computer: Harnessing the power of computers to verify mathematical proofs.

There are 4 articles in the Special Issue:

  1. Formal Proof, by Thomas Hales
  2. Formal Proof - The Four-Colour Theorem, by Georges Gonthier
  3. Formal Proof - Theory and Practice, by John Harrison
  4. Formal Proof - Getting Started, by Freek Wiedijk
The last paragraph of "Formal Proof - Getting Started" reads as:

However, having mathematics become utterly reliable might not be the primary reason that eventually formal mathematics will be used by most mathematicians. Formalisation of mathematics can be a very rewarding activity in its own right. It combines the pleasure of computer programming (craftsmanship, and the computer doing things for you), with that of mathematics (pure mind, and absolute certainty). People who do not like programming or who do not like mathematics probably will not like formalisation. However, for people who like both, formalisation is the best thing there is.
Clearly, formalisation is "geek heaven"!

The Wikipedia page on Formal Proof is a useful place to start learning the basic concepts. Informally, the idea of "formal proof" is that you replace error-prone human mathematicians by error-free computers, which are then used to expand each step of a (human-generated) proof all the way down to the fundamental axioms of mathematics. Naturally, this leads to extremely verbose formal proofs, but computers are ideally suited to handling this verbosity, and the advantage for us humans is that we can ensure that our proofs are error-free, because they have been checked by computer in every detail. Of course, we might have neither the time nor the inclination to fully "understand" the details of these proofs.

The following is a verbatim copy of the main part of a posting of mine Burden of Proof that I wrote over 2 years ago on my ACEnetica blog. It is very relevant to the issue of "formal proof" which is why I have included it here.
My own view on this issue is that a computer generated proof has exactly the same status as a human generated proof. The difference is only one of the degree of assistance provided to the brain of the human to help with the generation of the proof. A totally unassisted human would have to somehow do the whole proof mentally, which severely limits the length of proofs that are accessible. A human with the typical assistance that is allowed in an examination room (i.e. pen and paper) has the luxury of at least being able to write things down, which allows much longer proofs to be reliably generated. The mechanics of generating a proof then reduce to using well-defined rules to manipulate symbolic expressions, where pen and paper are used as a medium for representing these symbols, and the rules are implemented in the human brain.

The degree of assistence in generating a proof can be taken one stage further by using a computer to implement some or all of the rules for manipulating the symbolic expressions, rather than implementing all of the rules in the human brain. This seems to be a fairly radical step to take, because hitherto the only part of the proof that was "outside" the human brain was its "dumb" representation using pen and paper, whereas the "clever" bit involving the implementation of rules to manipulate this representation was "inside" the human brain.

Let us consider what these rules of manipulation actually are. Effectively, they define a procedure for taking an initial expression constructed out of symbols, and repeatedly operating on it using the rules to eventually generate the required final expression. The cleverness is in the construction of the set of rules, which is where a human is the best source of the cleverness needed to create the rules. There is no cleverness in the repeated application of these rules; all that is required is that their application is done reliably, which is where a computer is the best approach, especially if the proof has many steps.

Use a human to define the rules of manipulation, and use a computer to implement these rules. This approach seems to me to be entirely uncontroversial, and it is exactly how computer generated proofs are done. Note that software bugs in the computer part of the proof are dealt with in an analogous way to "software" bugs in human part of the proof, i.e. try a variety of approaches on a variety of platforms.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Second Life for Science and Scholarship

Demonstration of a Lorenz Attractor in Second Life.

I created the little video above as a simple example of how you can implement a dynamical 3D model in Second Life. All you need to do make a rudimentary demonstration of a Lorenz attractor is to create a set of particles in SL, and to embed a script inside each of the particles to tell it how to move according to the equations that govern the Lorenz attractor. The simulation itself is then automatically carried out by the SL virtual reality engine, whilst you move your virtual camera around the simulated Lorenz attractor in order to film a demonstration. That's all there is to creating the rather basic video that I posted above.

Some additional points:
  1. Each particle's motion leaves behind it a trail of "hot embers" that gradually cools off yellow/orange/red until it vanishes. This traces out the Lorenz attractor so we can easily see it.
  2. In this example I moved the camera manually rather than by scripting its motion, so the camera motion is rather clumsy.
  3. I had planned to include a voice-over commentary, but found that all my attention was needed just to operate my mouse and keyboard, so all you can hear is the occasional mouse-click.
  4. The background scenery is not actually relevant to this demonstration, which I performed in a small corner of my cliff-top land holding in Second Life. But maybe you can see a few objects of interest in the background.
  5. The almost invisible translucent motion in the background is an animated movie that I am displaying on a large screen I built in SL. More to come later on this...
That leads me onto the main subject of this posting.

George Djorgovski, Professor of Astronomy at Caltech, has a guest post at Cosmic Variance in which he vividly describes his experiences in using the virtual world Second Life for science and scholarship. To those who think that SL is just a game he offers the following advice:
Judging by my own experience, there is no way that you can really understand all this just by reading or listening; you have to try it. It is a fundamentally visceral, as well as an intellectual experience. It is as if you have never seen a bicycle, let alone ridden one, and someone was showing you pictures of people having a good time biking around, and telling you what a fun it is. Please keep that in mind. You gotta try it, then judge for yourself.
On the quality of the virtual experience he writes:
What really surprised me; knocked my virtual socks off, so to speak; is the subjective quality of the interpersonal interaction. Even with the still relatively primitive graphics, the same old flat screen and keyboard, and a limited avatar functionality, it is almost as viscerally convincing as a real life interaction and conversation. Somehow, our minds and perceptive systems interpolate over all of the imperfections, and it really clicks. I cannot explain it; it has to be experienced; it is not a rational, but a subjective phenomenon. It is much better than any video- or teleconferencing system I have tried, and like most of you, I have suffered through many of those. As a communication device, this is already a killer app. Going back to the good old email and Web feels flat and lame.
On the use of SL for science and scholarship he writes:
So the first major scholarly use of [virtual worlds] is as a communication, interaction, and collaboration venue. This includes individual, group, or collaboration meetings, seminars, or even full-blown conferences. You can interact with your colleagues as if they were in the same room, and yet they may be half way around the world.
And he writes much more about how virtual worlds in general (and Second Life in particular) are a key technology in the future of science and scholarship. Commentary, such as this by George Djorgovski, on the serious (rather than gaming) use of Second Life is to be welcomed.

I never have travelled well, typically arriving at conferences totally knackered and not recovering for days, so I look forward to virtual meetings becoming the norm, at least for short meetings, that is. Also, I have a highly visual way of explaining science (to myself and to others), so I look forward to building illustrative 3D dynamical models in SL. I think a key technology that is missing here is ready access to a higher-level set of tools for building and scripting such models in SL, at least that is what I see as being the main thing that is slowing down my progress in using SL.

This is only the start of what is to come...