What is learned today will be irrelevant tomorrow.


Talking to – not past – each other.

Published in Annual Report, Hanse Institute for Advanced Study/Hanse Wissenschaftskolleg, May 2013, pp/ 46-52

Published in Annual Report, Hanse Institute for Advanced Study/Hanse Wissenschaftskolleg, May 2013, pp/ 46-52
Of course, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study remains a reference impossible to ignore. Einstein and Gödel in dialog – wha t can cap this? Still, when Abraham Flexner – the first director – came up with the idea of the Institute and the Bambergers (Louis and Caroline) came up with the money, nobody anticipated the outcome: Alan Turing, Paul Erdös, Erwin Panofsky, and so many illustrious others hosted by the Institute would eventually acknowledge how important it was to spend time there. The meeting of inquiring minds stimulates everyone involved.
My experience in Delmenhorst, at one of the many Institutes inspired by the Princeton model, suggests that the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg (HWK) goes even farther. There is no reason for offering a cheap compliment. In the spirit of science that undergirds the activity at HWK, I will provide arguments for my assertion.
Again, it comes to mind how particular those who suggested Fellows at Princeton were. Writing to Frank Aydelotte, director at that time, Hermann Weyl mentions as possible Fellows Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, even George Gamow – all scientists of solid reputation. But the letter insists on those human qualities of the people proposed that we associate with openness and interest in others.
HWK learned this lesson quite well. The scientists who recommend Fellows to the Scientific Advisory Board of HWK – in m y case, Professors Otthein Herzog and Christian Freksa – are themselves quite well established in their fields. Careful to promote their own research agenda, they seek diversity. Through those they recommend, they gain access to those other Fellows who often bring a new perspec tive to their attention. Yes, this is the model of an intelligence multiplier. The wisdom of the crowds is a nice populist slogan. Interaction of minds as an intelligence multiplier is much more convincing.
Of course, the universities in the vicinity figure high in the evaluation process: Oldenburg, Bremen (including Jacobs University), as well as Osnabrück and Bremerhaven (the Alfred Wegener Institute) form a good basis for those who seek well-equipped laboratories and scientific partners. However, HWK, solidly grounded in the local, thinks global.
My experience of personal contacts, through HWK, with individuals shaped by their respective contexts, is impossible to quantify. It has so many dimensions. Of course, I was seeking scientific interaction in the first place. Evidently, my own focus on anticipation, within the neuroscience and cognitive science program, guided me. However, I learned about different ways of thinking by talking to colleagues from around the world, pursuing research in knowledge domains different from mine. HWK as a microcosmos—this is something Princeton never aspired to (although in our days, things have changed there, too).
More important, nevertheless, is the broad perspective. Yes, Princeton had Social Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies; it had several artists in residence and art on the Institute campus. But even in this respect, HWK surpassed the model. It attracts young and senior investigators in such fields as Energy Research, Marine and Climate Research, Social Sciences, Neuroscience, and Cognitive Sciences. Well, if a child’s paradise is a toy store (at least, it used to be when I was a child), my paradise is the world of cross- and interdisciplinarity. To have colleagues who are active in the arts, performing experiments in Antarctica, in researching the ocean depths, or in developing new technologies appropriate to quantifying details at the nanostructure level of matter is a privilege in itself.
It is not surprising that I learned a lot from Catherine Carr (who works on the hearing abilities of owls), Pere Garriga (researching vision at molecular levels), and John Dowling (molecular and cell biology). They are active in domains where my own research is firmly grounded. But I learned as well fr om Elger Esser, whose art is the result of intricate anticipations. To work on a postcard of the time before color printing was perfected is not different from what Bartók did with the music of the peasants from Maramures. Bartók and Enescu were the subject of a colloquium of extreme depth, during which Dr. Tibor Szasz, a magnificent pianist and musicologist, detailed aspects of their works.
My work profited from the depth of the experience, as it profited from interaction with the composer Luca Lombardi and his wife, Miriam, a splendid interpreter of music of many cultures. Obviously, the aesthetic experience in itself was inspiring. But I want to make reference to the ideas we exchanged, to questions we put to each other.
Few subjected my hypotheses to more radical scrutiny than such colleagues. They had a new perspective, and we need, if nothing else, a fresh perspective before we become captive to our models and ways of conducting research. The echo chamber in which we hear only what we say is not the place where creativity can manifest itself. In Delmenhorst, given the direct interaction, the echo chamber burst. Yes, anticipation as a dimension of ar t prompted my dialogs with Elger Esser, with Shonah Trescott and Juan Osvaldo Budet, and with Timothy Senior, (a Junior Fellow). After obtaining his PhD in neur oscience, Tim immersed himself in aesthetics and began exploring new spaces using the language of computer graphics and the interactive facilities of the Duke University Virtual Environment (DiVE). Dr. Senior – despite his name, and still at the beginning of his promising career – adopted me as his mentor in questions of anticipation, as I adopted him for my own questions in his particular neuroscience specialization: Systems Neuroscience, at Oxford University, with Professors Csicsvary and Somogy, is unique.
Let’s be frank here: in real life, on our university campus, such things do not happen. Institutions work with hierarchic models; and our students look and think more or less like us. At HWK, Junior and Senior Fellows can be who they are, independently of institutional framework conditions and it would be foolish not to take advantage of the necessary conflict between how we see things and how our colleagues, young or mature, see them. Yes, I did not shy away from challenging Susumu Shikano, Bernhard Kittel, and Ernst Fehr. In turn, I was delighted to be questioned, in public and private, by André Bächtiger, Andreas Anter, and Yuri Borgmann-Prebil, each coming from a perspective so different from mine.
For all this to come about, HWK had to be more than a comfortable address in a pleasant setting. It had to offer more than a good infrastructure and generous support. Let’s recall what happened to Princeton’s Institute once it comfortably settled within the aura of its early success, and under protection of its endowment. The never shy Richard Feynman let the Institute have it: »Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge. You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!« (Feynman 1986, New York)
I promised to provide arguments for my statement that HWK went way farther than the famous model. Feynman’s take is more a description of what can happen when structures become ossified. No, I do not believe that a Nobel Prize (such as Feynman’s) automatically confers the value of truth to everything those distinguished as laureates say or write. But Feynman’s words are a warning that nobody involved in research and education should ignore.
For me, one of HWK major a ttractions was the rich program of conferences, workshops, and seminars. The elegant building on Lehmkuhlenbusch – on top of the only hill in town – is an open house with a rich program. This brings to the Institute the topics pursued by researchers and scientists, by established institutes, by entrepreneurs, by social activists. I took advantage of the opportunity to learn about research in sustainable forms of energy, in marine biology, in experiments in economics and political science and in new farming concepts. Through the network around the Institute, I arrived at the farmstead (»Bauernhof«) of Jan-Bernd Meyerholz, and experienced the new way of thinking about the old farm: it produces energy, practices sustainable agriculture; it lives in close connection to the science that drives the knowledge society.
From the workshops I gained access to data and methods; plus I added to my list of scientific contacts those who are interested in further interaction: Mahesh Pattabhi Ramaiah, Wulf Schiefenhövel, Stefan Mátéfi- Tempfli. Alexey Sukhotin inspired my attention to anticipatory aspects of hibernation; his wife, Irina, helped me in defining the context in which early writings of R ussian authors (Anokhin, Uchtomsky, Bernstein etc.) brought up anticipation. In short, I gained a perspective on anticipation that I could not have derived from just reading books and peer-reviewed articles.
Feynman would have enjoyed the Hanse- Wissenschaftskolleg. The weekly lectures given by the Fellows become a lively dialog. Hypotheses are advanced; the hosts are present to question whatever is ascertained; and discussions often go on for days afterwards. Jin Hyun Kim, a Junior Fellow, questioned me on many occasions. Aron Stubbins introduced me to the large data sets model and to his attempt to involve the computer industry. Guy Denuault was patient in discussing my need for measuring various parameters characteristic of actions through which anticipation is expressed. On this note, I continue to cherish the experience of posing questions to Go Ashida: the »hearing machine« that afforded Alan L. Hodgkin and Andrew F. Huxley a Nobel Prize was for each of us a reference to the next step toward understanding predictive aspects of sensorial perception.
It is not my intention to simply drop names (and expressions of gratitude), rather to describe a context, and to lend substance to the assertion that HWK lives up to the successful model of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and impressively surpassed it. Of course, I have no idea which scholars interacted with Einstein, Gödel, or Turing. But I do know those who at HWK facilitated the dialog I have described. The staff in the background who make sure that public lectures, attended by many from the city and its surroundings, workshops, and Fellows activities take place smoothly.
To be able to transcend the boundaries of your own discipline is less and less par t of the life of scientists. Sure, specialization has its rewards; and nobody would argue against it. But in order to maintain one’s grounding in reality, to avoid seeing only yourself and your thoughts in your mind’s mirror, it helps to be in an environment propitious to interaction. My weekly dialog with Frieder Nake, who is not only a pioneer in computer art, but also a distinguished scholar with many interests, attracted other colleagues as well. I am sure that those who took the opportunity for a talk, will benefit from it as much as I did. We did not exchange pleasantries; rather, we questioned ideas and developments and forged new plans. Leonardo Chelazzi, Tecumseh Fitch, Ernst Pöppel, and Wulf Herzongenrath, who gave distinguished lectures, found time to entertain my questions. We are still in touch (even though my view of things is quite different from theirs).
Certainly, I miss seeing the rapeseed plants grow and blossom in the fields, the forsythia in spring, the small river »Delme« moving lazily, and the surrounding forests; I miss the concerts in the historic evangelical church in Ganderkesee (and walking from the campus to the localities around Delmenhorst), the collegial dinners and breakfasts. I took away so much more for my research from the experience of interaction that I wish someone could grant me another life.
Actually, in some ways I have it. The Study Group on anticipation across disciplines will bring several very interesting scientists to Delmenhorst. From among those who attended my graduate seminar, Andreas Kurismaa (now back in Tallin, Estonia), whose degree project in the Neuroscience Program at the University of Osnabruck I ended up advising, will definitely attend. May be Lutz Dickmann also, soon to get his PhD from the University of Bremen. If you happen to be in the vicinity, do not miss this opportunity. HWK has never turned away anyone truly interested in science and art.

Posted in Anticipation, Post-Industrial/Post Literate Society

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