Foresight 2013 – Day 3

This article is a continuation of my commentary on the Foresight 2013 conference.  As I mentioned in my Day 1 and Day 2 posts, the Foresight folks have a strict media policy in place.  So while I can’t really blog about the content of the presentations, I will discuss the work these speakers have previously made public.

I am not a morning person (I’m a b-chronotype for those in the know.)  So I was prevented from seeing the morning speakers by the tyranny of the early risers.  But I did enjoy seeing Arthur Olson of the Scripps Research Institute, which is a private, non-profit, biomedical research organization.  Olson’s work focuses on modeling processes at the molecular level. He was a pioneer of molecular graphics and his lab is appropriately called the Molecular Graphics Laboratory.  You should definitely take a look at some of the “Tangible Interfaces for Molecular Biology” demos.  Super cool.

These tools allow researchers to turn molecules over in their hands and examine the structure or even attach side-chains and basically play with the models.  Olson joins many other researchers in his realization that play is incredibly important to the learning process.  He pointed out that Crick and Watson used a physical model to refine Franklin’s discoveries from her DNA x-ray diffractions.  Physical models provide a rich cognitive substrate and aid in social cognition.   Olson extends his work with physical models into education with his Science Within Reach project.  The amazing Inner LIfe of the Cell video comes to mind with regard to Olson’s work.  Apparently the Harvard students who watched this animation scored much higher on a quiz about these cell functions than students that didn’t get to see it .  Sucks to be in the control group sometimes.

Anyway, Olson’s group does a lot of other cool stuff like ligand-protein docking modeling with Autodock.  I got confused about this whole Autodock force field idea.  I guess for chemists, its more about potential energy approximation than about, you know, protecting astronauts or something.  They also work on an embedded Python Molecular Viewer (ePMV) that “runs molecular modeling software directly inside of professional 3D animation applications” like Maya or Blender.  This like hijacking the tons of money poured into Hollywood-style animation tools and putting it to work for science.  Awesome.  Some cranky types like to point out that models misrepresent and oversimplify the complexity of reality.  But screw those guys if they can’t grasp how powerful (and beautiful) these pretty close representations are.

As a side note, I am now more convinced than ever that Python is a cool language to learn.  RIP Aaron Swartz.

James Ellenbogen from the MITRE corporation also spoke at Foresight 2013.  Ellenbogen heads the MITRE Nanosystems group and runs the student program there.  One of his more prominent accomplishments recently was his involvement in the creation of the first programmable nanoprocessor.  Now this is a cool thing to have a computer no larger than a human cell.  Yeah, slap a fractal antenna on that nanoprocessor and go all Fantastic Voyage.  But Ellenbogen’s presentation had such an amazing ending (which I can’t discuss) that it sort of takes the wind out of my sails.  Just seriously watch those physics news feeds, I’m telling you.

Ellenbogen’s student program sounds interesting. A bunch of wunderkind go off to a little known private research corporation to work on secret projects of national importance.  Where’s Dr. Xavier?  Also, what’s with this MITRE place anyway?  I guess it’s some sort of sister entity to the RAND corporation with a focus on complex network systems.  They build a lot of stuff for the FAA.  When I was trying to find info on MITRE, I quickly came across a bunch of posts by the tin-foil hat crowd who figure MITRE must have been in on 9/11 since they have root access to the air traffic control systems.  Oh yes, it’s all falling into place now.

Stay tuned for the final Foresight installment:  Alan Aspuru-Guzik on what quantum computing is really good for, Gerhard Klimeck shares knowledge worldwide with, and Ron Dror and William Goddard give us yet more reasons to respect their models.

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