Challenging given assumptions

The last two presentations seemed to be quite different from each other and from any other presentation of the day. Krister Shalm and James Andrew Smith are two scientists not directly involved with any artist or artistic activities. However, a further reflection reveals how quantum physics (Shalm) and engineering (Smith) could indeed bring up elements that  resonated with the other topics explored today as well as raise questions about assumptions in science and real life.

Krister Shalm has worked for several years on experimental quantum measurements, especially the “infamous” double slit experiment. In 2011, the team at the Quantum Optics group at the University of Toronto made a groundbreaking discovery regarding the nature of photons (particles or wave?)
Shalm explained that despite the sensation the results created on the press (see article here and here )

In reality its real merit consists in having looked at the double slit experiment from a different perspective, that is, by introducing a different way to do measurements called “weak measurement” (a weak probe that very weakly disturbs the system). In brief, instead of asking “what is one particle doing?” (strong measurement) this new view asks:  ” what is the average particle doing?” .

Shalm was wondering why, if the experiment really didn’t make a completely new discovery, it resonated so much in the media.

see the hilarious song that mentions the experiment at U of T minute 0:50

This made me think about Isabelle Stengers in her book Cosmopolitics: she points out that it is not the groundbreaking experiment the cause of sensation, shock and rejection  in the scientific community, but the way this is postulated and how the perspective that is brought out challenges existing ideas. in Shlam’s case, the problem was not the experiment, but the images circulated about the experiment, as they challenged the regular views about the double slit experiment.

In a similar way, James Andrew Smith  challenged the ideas that inform Information by juxtaposing inspiration and mimicry. in fact, when we think about the process that leads from inspiration to invention, we should not assume that by copying nature ( eg., taking pictures of  dogs and then copy the dog  to  invent a robot, or shaping an airplane after a bird) we are set for success.

He introduced the notion of Bioinspiration,  a partial copy that is more relevant to the context that hosts it. When you do stuff for robotic you don’t quite copy but appropriate features of other animals. the faithful copy is more likely to produce defects. Assumptions and traditional approaches prevent us from adjusting our inventions to be more suitable for our need. However, it is often very difficult to think outside the box. he admitted for instance that because of the demographic that composes engineering teams, it is quite difficult to produce anything that doesn’t suit a male, white assumption of how things should be done (when I asked him why  robots are shaped after certain animals, like dogs, or very fast felines, e.g. the cheeta, he replied that the reason is simple: there are no women in those teams, thus, the general rule is that robots have to be fast and appealing to a male aesthetic)