Santa Fe Institute

In first 72 Hours of Science, SFI postdocs test the limits of transdisciplinary science

April 20, 2016 10:10 a.m.

In a unique experiment in testing the limits of scientific collaboration, 15 Santa Fe Institute postdocs holed up in a home in the foothills above Tesuque, New Mexico, recently for three days and three nights of intense scientific research.

Their goal: starting virtually from scratch, produce a novel, transdisciplinary scientific research paper in just 72 hours. They called the event "72 Hours of Science," 72h(S) in shorthand.

It’s something the participants, all Institute postdoctoral fellows, say could only happen at SFI.

“It really was the sense of SFI's willingness to take risks that made me feel like the idea would fly and be worth the effort to try, and it was the amazing postdoc community that made me think we could be successful,” says SFI Omidyar Fellow Chris Kempes, who says the idea was inspired by the 48-Hour Film Project, in which filmmakers start with a genre, a line of dialogue, and a character and have 48 hours to produce and screen a short film.

For 72 Hours of Science, the team began with even less: a set of ground rules describing how the team would collaborate. Individuals came with their own ideas for paper topics but were prohibited from discussing them widely prior to noon on Monday, April 4th, when 72h(S) commenced.

Agreeing on a research question might have been the hardest part, says SFI Omidyar Fellow Caitlin Stern — finalizing the topic and organizing individual tasks took up much of the first 24 hours, she says. An important objective was that the topic be of sufficient breadth to engage many of the disciplines represented by the SFI postdocs, including physics, mathematics, anthropology, ecology, evolutionary biology, computer science, sociology, linguistics and several other fields.

Then the team broke into groups to tackle various challenges, including a review of existing scientific literature to ensure that no one had attempted to answer the same question. Three teams worked to come up with computer models and algorithms that would help them study the problem. Others sought real-world evidence, analyzing freely available data to detect patterns. They came together to compare notes and coordinate and reformed into groups as needed.

"We approached the problem from a number of different angles, starting from different fields, and all came up independently with the same trends," says SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Brendan Tracey. "That's the most remarkable thing about the work to me."

From the moment of topic selection, everything clicked, says SFI Omidyar Fellow Daniel Larremore. “There was enormous camaraderie," he says. "People were asking for more work when they finished something, and everyone had a very dynamic to-do list."

A few minutes before noon on Thursday, April 7, after a “surprisingly normal” volume of coffee, Kempes says, the team posted their research, titled “Dynamics of Beneficial Epidemics,” at arXiv.org, a preprint-hosting site where many physics, computer science, and theoretical biology papers go before being published in journals. The work still needs to be reviewed by their scientific peers, but the research is attracting attention both from scientists and the news media.

And, the postdocs say, they’d do it again. “It was great fun, and it was also rewarding to be so many minds thinking about the same thing in totally different ways,” says SFI Omidyar Fellow Marion Dumas. “It brings a whole different perspective on what science is—not about any individual being right or wrong, but about disciplined collective inquiry.”

Read their preprint at arXiv.org (April 7, 2016)

Read the article in Gizmodo (April 12, 2016)

Read the article in MIT Technology Review (April, 19, 2016)

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