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November 03, 2007, 3:30 PM

The Role of the Subject in Science

Participants: Sukanya Chakrabarti, Piet Hut (moderator), Jan-Markus Schwindt, Margaret Turnbull, Edwin L. Turner

Science describes nature in terms of objects, and tries to minimize effects due to subjects—the scientists themselves—and their interactions with the objects under study. Recent results in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and robotics imply that the subject is now itself under study, but in an object-like, third person way. Whether such an approach can really cover all aspects of the subject is heavily discussed by philosophers and scientists. What are the alternatives? Can we broaden the scientific method by carefully lifting the restrictions on the empirical method that have been in vogue for the last few hundred years? Is it possible to introduce first-person experience in some form, perhaps starting with systematic phenomenological approaches? Can we go further than that? These are the topics that will be addressed in our round table by a group of five physicists and astrophysicists.

Sukanya Chakrabarti is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She does research on the dynamics of galaxies and their emergent spectral energy distributions, using simulations,analytic theory, and analysis of multiwavelength observations.

Piet Hut is Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he heads the Program of Interdisciplinary Studies. An astrophysicist with an interest in the history of the Universe and computational science, he is the author of many books and articles that explore these areas.

Jan-Markus Schwindt is a postdoctoral candidate in theoretical physics at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. His work in physics so far addresses issues in cosmology, extra dimensions, and quantum gravity. Apart from that, he has an interest in the philosophy of science and the mind/matter problem.

Margaret Turnbull works in the search for life on other worlds. She created a Catalog of Habitable Stellar Systems for use in SETI searches, which includes star systems within about 1000 light years that are apparently capable of supporting life as we know it. Margaret also works in support of missions to discover Earth-like planets orbiting other stars by outlining the technological achievements that will be required to detect and characterize those planets in terms of their habitability to life and any signatures of existing life. Dr. Turnbull's work includes the study of the Earth and how it would appear from a distance, as well as exploration of extreme dry and cold environments to better understand the true limits of Earth-like life.

Edwin L. Turner is Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University and is currently serving as Chair of the Board of Governors of the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC). He worked at the Institute for Advanced Study and Harvard University before joining the Princeton faculty in 1978. He has carried out extensive astronomical observations at Mt. Palomar Observatory, Kitt Peak National Observatory, NRAO's Very Large Array, Apache Point Observatory, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan's Subaru Telescope, and with the Hubble Space Telescope. He served as Director of the Apache Point Observatory 3.5-meter Telescope for nine years.


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