Activities in 2009-2010

From the Report for Academic Year 2009-2010
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 nineteen visitors, with durations of their visits ranging from days to months, in fields including physics, astrophysics, bioinformatics, medicine, psychology, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, education, media, political science, comparative law, art history, and journalism in virtual worlds.

During the year, Prof. Hut, together with colleagues Caroline Bynum and Nicola Di Cosmo from the School of Historical Studies, organized a series of After-Hour Conversations, which were held at IAS in Harry's Bar, two times a week for a period of two months during each semester. 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, and received special praise in the decadal review that was published recently:

An innovative example of fostering cross-disciplinary interaction is the After Hours Conversations program, developed by Professors Caroline Bynum and Piet Hut within the last couple of years, which has been an enormous success.

Prof. Hut's main research focus this year continued to be his exploration of virtual worlds, especially Second Life, currently the largest non-game 3D on-line virtual world, with a continued presence in-world of well over 50,000 residents at any given time. As a sign of the `coming of age' of virtual world activities, he received an NSF grant for his work on the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA; http://www.mica-vw.org/), a virtual organization that he had established two years earlier, in the category of Human Centered Computing (the research proposal was titled `Exploring the Use of Immersive Virtual Reality Technologies for Scientific Research, Communication, and Outreach').

In addition to organizing colloquia and workshops in Second Life, MICA has also started to explore an open-source virtual world, modeled upon Second Life, called OpenSim. The great advantage of OpenSim is that it allows the user to perform actual simulations, by tinkering with the physics engine, the software module that governs gravity and other physical effects. In this way, Hut and co-workers have been able to perform N-body simulations, the results of which were discussed in a workshop in Tokyo in September 2009, entitled `Using Virtual Worlds for Interactive Simulations of Star Cluster Evolution.'

Another institute that was co-founded by Hut, Kira (http://www.kira.org/), and brought into Second Life in the fall of 2008, continued its more broadly interdisciplinary activities. Kira was founded thirteen years ago by faculty members from Stanford University, Princeton University, IAS and elsewhere, as a forum to discuss the nature of scientific knowledge and to compare that with other ways of knowing, from philosophy and art to various contemplative traditions. Its main activities in Second Life are a series of weekly workshops on a wide range of topics.