July 30, 2015

Theory Hackathons

The theoretical physicist/surfer Garrett Lisi has a long-range vision called the scientific hostel. A scientific hostel is a facility (in a desirable location such as Maui) where scientists can visit and do science/interact for short periods of time.

I have pursued another type of collective scientific endeavor called the theory hackathon [1]. The initial version of this idea occurred in November 2014 when Dr. Richard Gordon (part of the DevoWorm project) visited Champaign-Urbana for a few days of collaboration and discussion. The proceedings here hosted by Orthogonal Research.

In their original form, hackathons are multi-day events that bring programmers together from far-flung physical locations. The "hacking" involves solving problems in a collaborative atmosphere, with the extended period of collaboration allowing for participants to benefit from "extended cognitive flow" [2]. A theory hackathon is quite similar, except that instead of programmers solving programming puzzles, theorists work to solve scientific puzzles.

Some images of the hackathon proceedings (lecture component taken at the Champaign (IL) Public Library).

The basic outline of a theory hackathon (held over several days) involves three interrelated activities: exploration of ideas, organizational sessions, and a formal talk. The session held between Richard and I was primarily to flesh out some pre-existing ideas, but this could be done on a larger scale and with a more formalized schedule.

Traditional Hackathon, with programming and programmers.

Beginnings of a theory hackathon?

As mentioned previously, our hackathon session was pretty informal. A more formal framework might include several activities:

* one-on-one or small group brainstorming sessions. This can be done using a electronic whiteboard or Python notebook to keep track of the cumulative efforts. The idea is to collectively explore a problem and develop as much of a solution as you can in a few hours.

* discussions and follow-ups on previous and outstanding projects. This is largely organizational, but including the housekeeping function as a part of the theory hackathon can drive forward those old ideas in new ideas. It's the "fresh eyes for an old problem" principle at work.

* semi-public lectures. Part of developing theory is working at organizing concepts, references, and data in a lecture format. This part ofo the theory hackathon might involve developing a lecture either ad-hoc or in advance, and then deconstructing the contents in a group setting.

Theory hackathons can be organized around a specific topic (e.g. developmental biology), or the mechanics of theory-building itself [3]. Either way, they can lead to fruitful collaborations and long-lasting ideas. If not, there will still be fledgling ideas to follow up on. While theory hackathons will undoubetedly produce many loose ends, subsequent collaborative meetings and hackathons can help advance this work further.

[1] h/t Stephen Larson, for coining this phrase during one of our meetings.

[2] For more, please see: Csikszentmihalyi, M.   The Systems Model of Creativity: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dordrecht, Springer (2014). 

[3] For one example of theory-building as a formal activity, please see: Weick, K.E.   Theory Construction as Disciplined Imagination. Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 516-531 (1989).

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