Of course, these days one rarely “jaunts” anywhere. The flying portion of this trip, which was perhaps just a little more trouble than the average, may be summarized by: First flight delayed so many times that entire trip is postponed one day; spend 3.5 hours on phone with some of the world’s most incompetent customer service people (Travelocity), and their runners-up (Icelandair), before finally getting some help rescheduling from Delta; arrive in Iceland one day late, only to discover that you will be luggageless for at least a day; spend next 2 days in same clothes; fly back to New York; second flight delayed significantly; deal with useless and borderline rude Delta service at airport; board plane 1.5 hours late; spend 2 hours on runway; finally arrive home (at least with luggage this time) at almost 2am.
However, although I think I seriously need to review the amount of traveling I do, given how broken the system is, I must say that my time in Iceland was worth it.
We’ve discussed FQXi here before, in a guest post from Associate Scientific Director Anthony Aguirre, in which he not only laid out the philosophy and goals if the organization, but also addressed concerns that I and others had voiced about the sole current financial backer of the endeavor – the John Templeton Foundation (JTF). I have agonized over this ever since. I am clearly not in agreement with the goals of JTF. On the other hand, FQXi is independent of them, has its own charter, and is, as far as I can tell, supporting good, defensible science. They are also actively looking for a more diverse funding stream and, in fact, their seed grant from JTF will soon expire. Most certainly, if they had a number of donors, of which JTF was one, I would not spend time worrying about these issues.
In any case, earlier this year FQXi invited me to take part in their inaugural meeting and I decided that this would be a good way to dip my toe in the water and get a brief first-hand look at what they’re about, while getting to talk with colleagues old and new about a lot of intellectual issues that I spend time thinking about. So I accepted their kind invitation and submitted myself once again to the tortures of modern air travel.
The workshop was held at the Radisson SAS Saga in Reykjavik, Iceland; a place I have never been to previously, and always thought would be intriguing. Arriving early on Sunday, I checked in, cleaned my smelly self up as much as possible and headed right back out to attend the first real sessions of the meeting. The first day was filled with the only invited talks of the entire conference – overviews on Quantum Mechanics, Inflation, Non-String Quantum Gravity, String Theory (or Non-Non-String Quantum Gravity, as might have been more fair), The Late Universe, etc. Most of these talks were excellent, providing a clear summary and, most importantly, some common vocabulary useful when you have participants with such diverse experience – people interested in the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics may have a great deal to say to those fascinated by how to put a measure on eternally inflating spacetimes, but they may never know if they don’t get a common language straight.
Monday, the entire day was spent at the Blue Lagoon Spa, which sounds decadent, but … oh, okay, it was decadent. But if it makes you feel better, we had an hour of short talks in the morning there, and three hours of group discussions in the afternoon. Groups were organized on the basis of three foundational questions each participant had submitted in advance, and I ended up in an “arrow of time” group, which was fun, but not quite what I’d expected. Nevertheless, I learned quite a lot from the discussions, which is what its all about.
The spa itself was a remarkable place, with a hot pool, warmed by geothermal springs, and lined with natural mud that is supposed to make physicists pretty if applied in the correct way. None of us figured out the correct way. Here’s a picture courtesy of the extremely fun Valerie Jamieson (from New Scientist, and who has also blogged about the trip over at the New Scientist Space Blog), who I’ll mention again in a while.
Tuesday was all business. The discussion groups from Monday were supposed to report to the workshop, not on the answers they had arrived at (who’s going to solve any of these foundational questions in a day?) but rather on the questions that their discussions had raised. Our group meandered around a little in our presentation, but homed in on what is, perhaps, the only clearly defined question: Why did our universe begin in such a low entropy state? (Something we’ve discussed here at Cosmic Variance on a number of occasions. See also Sean’s discussion at Preposterous Universe).
That evening there were no organized activities, and so I had dinner with my friends Lawrence Krauss and his wife Kate at The Pearl restaurant, which overlooks Reykjavik and executes a complete rotation every two hours. Great fun indeed.
Wednesday was mostly an excursion day and, I should say, one of the more amazing of these that I’ve ever been on. The buses took us first to Thingvellir National Park, where the Icelandic parliament – one of the oldest in the world – was founded in 930. We had only a little time to survey the spectacular scenery, before moving on to Geysir National Park, home of the original geyser, after which all others are named. That one has essentially stopped spurting now, but another still goes off every 5-7 minutes. This was a good place for a quick lunch, with the geyser periodically spurting in the background.
Back on the bus, we drove out across an alien landscape of boulders and black sand until we were within a half-mile of the Langjokull glacier. Here we stopped and were supplied with heavy-duty ski suits, overshoes, gloves and helmets, before being shuttled down to the glacier itself on a huge specially-designed vehicle.
At the glacier, we paired up and were supplied with snowmobiles and a brief lesson on how to drive them. Here I am before actually driving one.
A mutual realization that it was better to be paired with someone who appeared to be paying attention to this lesson than with one of those who were gazing at the landscape ensured that Valerie Jamieson and I rode together.
This really was a remarkable trip. We rode out until all that one could see in any direction was the glacier, with the mountains and volcanoes in the distance. It was spectacular. We stopped at the halfway point and took photographs. Some of our group got into a snowball fight (a rock-and-iceball fight really). In the photograph below you can see Valerie and me on our vehicle, with some of the perpetrators in the background, most notably Wojciech Zurek (with beard), who turned out to be quite an iceball marksman.
After driving back and shedding our glacier-wear, we spent some time on science again, getting split up into new groups and assigned to discuss our new questions during the rest of the day and the evening. I ended up in a fun group with Anton Zeilinger (of quantum teleportation fame), Dmitry Budker, Markus Aspelmeyer, Valerie Jamieson and John Donoghue (who abandoned us for another group he’d already been discussing with) to discuss the question of whether we should expect that the physical constants should be changing over time.
We began this discussion on our bus on our way to the next mind-blowing destination, in this case Gullfoss (the Golden Waterfall). The photo below, taken from the Wikipedia site about Gullfoss, does a good job of conveying the splendor of this two-level waterfall that terminates in a ravine
As you might imagine, we were all pretty hungry after this. Dinner didn’t disappoint. Held at a rustic restaurant at Stokkseyri, a black sand beach on the southern coast, our lobster banquet was some of the best seafood I’ve ever had.
Thursday morning we were back to serious work, debating the results of the previous day’s group discussions. Well, as serious as work can be when the debaters must wear viking hats! Watching Lawrence Krauss and Fred Adams debate in this way, one brandishing a sword and the other an axe, has to be seen to be believed (sorry – I have no photos). The presentations were a little spotty but there were some definite highlights including, for me, the group that had debated the interpretation of quantum mechanics and the one that had talked about eternal inflation, although the latter didn’t get as much time as I’d have liked to see.
This was a fascinating and intellectually stimulating conference in an unusual and dramatic location; so I’m glad I went. Perhaps best of all, there wasn’t a hint of any religion, spirituality, or any such non-science about the whole meeting, which I was delighted with. I returned exhausted, however. The conference itself was full with planned activities and talks, and it was nice to finish up the days with a beer in the bar with friends. But this left plenty of sleep time, and I’d hoped to take advantage of this because life has been a little hectic recently, with a ridiculous number of papers approaching completion. I’ll probably blog about them in a month or so when they’re done.
But it turned out to be difficult for me to sleep in Reykjavik. At this time of year it doesn’t really get dark, but just becomes dusky for a few hours from around 11:30 until 2 or so. Although the hotel provides an eye mask, I found it uncomfortable and the light coupled with a little jet lag meant sleep didn’t come easily. On the plus side, I was able to get a few hours extra time to calculate and write each day. On the minus side, four hours sleep or so a night doesn’t really cut it.
Nevertheless, what a week!