Activities in 2007-2008

From the Report for Academic Year 2007-2008
of the Institute for Advanced Study

PIET HUT's activities included both his astrophysics research and his responsibilities as the Head of the Program of Interdisciplinary Studies. The latter program had thirty-one visitors, with durations of their visits ranging from days to months, in fields including physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, computational science, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, philosophy, history, education, and media.

Prof. Hut's main focus this year has been the exploration of virtual worlds. After he established two organizations using Qwaq Forums in the spring of 2007, one for astrophysics collaborations, and one for broadly interdisciplinary studies, these two environments have been used successfuly for communication and collaboration amongs scientists as well as scholars, and for outreach as well. The collaboration with Qwaq has been mutually beneficial, and included two brief visits of the CEO as well as the CTO of Qwaq, in the spring of 2008.

A breakthrough in virtual collaborations came when Prof. Hut let both of these organizations branch out into Second Life, currently the largest non-game 3D on-line virtual world, with a continued presence in-world of roughly 50,000 residents at any given time. Since April 2008, the astrophysics organization, MICA, for Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics, forms the equivalent of a virtual academic department, with various scheduled talks and discussions every week, and ongoing research collaborations. Also since April, a very broadly interdisciplinary intiative, PaB, for Play as Being, involves daily meetings in Second Life to discuss the nature of knowledge from many different angles.

In the fall of 2007, Prof. Hut was one of the organizers of a workshop on general purpose computation on graphics processing units (GPUs) in astrophysics, a meeting at IAS that attracted over a hundred participants, and was the first astrophysics workshop especially aimed at using game-based hardware technology for scientific simulations.

In the spring of 2008, Prof. Hut, together with colleague Caroline Bynum from the School of Historical Studies, organized a series of After-Hour Conversations, which were held at IAS in Harry's Bar, three times a week for a period of two months. Each gettogether had a more formal part lasting thirty minutes, starting with a ten-minute talk by a speaker and followed by a twenty-minute period of questions. In addition, many participants would continue informal conversations afterward. These activities were widely seen as an effective way to lower the threshold for inter-School communication at IAS.