An Interesting Day in the Academic Trenches

As Utah Phillips might say, the University of Michigan isn’t the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from here. So it’s nice that lots of interesting people keep coming here to keep us entertained.

At lunch I went to at talk on the historical development of the nuetral theory of evolution, from STIS staff scientist Egbert Leigh. It doesn’t sound like such a hot topic, but I’m fascinated by just how un-obvious tropical biological richness is when you really start to look at it, and I’ve been told I should consequently know about neutral theory, and thought the talk might be just the thing. So did lots of other people apparently, the large-ish room at the museum of natural history was at capacity. It turned out to be just this side of incomprehensible for my genetics-theory underequipped brain (and frankly some people should just not be allowed around powerpoint). But there was something soothing and pleasant about sitting on a radiator in a room packed up with young and old smart folks, listening to this bearded old dude droning on about really smart stuff he clearly really knew a lot about, and idly contemplating the firing of neural networks throughout the crowd. There were necessarily no academic high points for me, but the non-academic high point was when he suggested in his even, dispassionate way that Steve Hubbell built out the powerful and influential neutral theory, which every sensible person knows is fundamentally bonked, “because it was a sweet job, the same way building the atomic bomb was a sweet job for Oppenheimer”, and the crowd accepted that in their even, dispassionate way. I’m sure the lecturer didn’t mean it that way, but still, c’mon, Hiroshima?

After lunch I went and hung out in the Center for the Study of Complex System, where I feel legitimately entitled to check my email in a complex systems way since I probably passed my Evolutionary Dynamics test yesterday and thus still have a shot at getting my minor in complex systems. Then I went back to my home department, where my advisor had arranged an informal afternoon seminar with Michael Batty and some other Brits who were in town for a social sciences conference. Last year I spent a long weekend in Chicago, exploring the neighbourhoods there. I took a copy of one of Batty’s many books about city simulation with me. I didn’t end up doing a lot of reading, but to the extent that I did it was fun to contrast the rich and surprising reality of the very visceral and assertive city of Chicago with the abstractions and essences of the book. So it was particularly pleasant to spend a non-directed afternoon around a table with Prof. Batty and other smart people batting around big ideas in agent-based modeling.

Being a grad student has it’s ups and downs, and there are plenty of times when I’ve wished for the mindless tedium of manual labour as a preferable substitute for the adult-student lifestyle, but when it comes through, the life of an academic can really come through.

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