[#36] MICA: the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics

By Piet Hut

It is hard to predict the future.  Twelve years ago, Second Life (SL) began to make headlines.  There were predictions that soon business cards would not only list email addresses, but also avatar names, uniquely pointing to the animated characters in SL that represented the owners of the cards.


At that time, Facebook wasn't on the radar yet, and the development of Twitter hadn't even started.  In social media, for a while SL seemed to reign supreme.  Universities competed with each other to set up virtual campuses in SL, and many leading brands, from cars to clothing, created outlets there. In France, political campaigns were fought in SL.  In the US, Anshe Chung, the most successful entrepreneur-avatar, graced the cover of BusinessWeek magazine.

A couple years later, Facebook and Twitter saw meteoric growth, overtaking the landscape of social media.  What is more, the invention of the iPhone, facilitating the use of those two newcomers, provided a formidable handicap for SL, making it next to impossible to enjoy a session in a virtual world while peering through the tiny screen of a hand-held device.

Yet SL continues to thrive, a full fifteen years after it was launched, with no signs of being on its way out.  Until 2013, its number of users kept growing, after which it stabilized. The reason for the continuing success of Second Life is simply that there is no other on-line 3D world that allows its users the enormous freedom to _live_ in that virtual world, in a way to that is incredibly creative.

Avatars in SL consider themselves citizens, not players.  There are no winners or losers, and nobody sets artifical rules or goals for how to enjoy and express yourself.  You can build any kind of fantasy building that you can think of.  You can build up an amazing range of organizations with others among the million or so users.  You can explore, meet new friends, you name it.  Even now, there still isn't any virtual environment that comes as close as SL to being a whole new world to live in.

Exactly ten years ago, my colleague George Djorgovski and I started an experiment in SL, together with other astrophysicists interested in exploring alternatives to our frequent traveling across different continents, in order to meet colleagues we were collaborating with.

A professional astrophysics colloquium in the amphitheater of MICA

A professional astrophysics colloquium in the amphitheater of MICA

We opened the first professional scientific organization based in a virtual world, MICA, short for Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics.  Our headquarters provided space for meeting rooms, laboratories, offices, and of course a bar to hang out at.  The building itself was designed by a professional architect, Mara Breunesse, in consultation with the MICA core group.

The experiment lasted five years, from 2008 through 2012. During this time we held regular colloquia, at least once a week, with dozens of avatars attending.  Typical for open sense of community in SL was the fact that MICA straddled the boundary between popular science and professional research activities.  One day a graduate student would talk about his or her master's thesis, another day a Nobel prize winner would give a talk about technical details of the latest research, and yet another day somebody would give a typical outreach talk for a wider public.

Among the amateur astronomers who joined us, there were quite a few professional computer scientists and programmers, who provided valuable help in terms of code development for our astrophysics simulations, as well as extending visualization tools of various kinds, some of which led to professional publications (click here for a published version, and here for a preprint).  Not only that, we were able to use the virtual world itself as an astrophysics laboratory!

Open-Sim as a lab: the gravitational 3-body problem demonstrated

Open-Sim as a lab: the gravitational 3-body problem demonstrated

Given that the gravitational field in a virtual world is also simulated (by what is called the "physics engine"), together with anything else, we decided to tinker with it.  Instead of letting everything drop down, in Aristotelian fashion, we implemented a version where all objects attract each other through the inverse-square dependence of Newtonian universal gravity.  However, given that our neighbors would not be amused seeing the pots and pans in their kitchen starting to orbit each other, we did this in Open-Sim, an open-source version modeled on SL (click here for a publication, and here for a preprint).

I first arrived in Second Life via a meandering path through two other virtual worlds, triggered by an invitation to give a popular astrophysics talk to avatars, more than a year before we started MICA.  Early in 2007, the invitation came from of friend of mine, Michael Nesmith, who had gone on to explore different digital entertainment techniques, after becoming famous as one of the Monkees in the popular TV series in the sixties.  Nez had been a pioneer in exploring virtual worlds already in the nineties, and my first appearance was in his world called Videoranch3D.

A flamingo mosh in Videoranch3D: as a sign of celebration we would all turn into pink flamingos for a while.

A flamingo mosh in Videoranch3D: as a sign of celebration we would all turn into pink flamingos for a while.

After my debut, sensing a keen interest among the other avatars, and enjoying the exploration of a whole new mode of existence, I volunteered to give a weekly talk on science topics.  Nez even got a special log cabin built, as a cozy informal lecture room, which he dubbed "Piet's Hut".

Fun and playful as it was, Videoranch3D was specialized for entertainment, especially for musical performances, and I had difficulty getting my friends and colleagues into that particular world, if they were not already aficionados of virtual worlds.  Yet I wanted to explore their use for science and philosophy, so after some searching, I found a simpler and more neutral platform, in the form of Qwaq, no-frills, more business oriented, where I was offered free membership to test out and give feedback about their product.  Summaries of some or our activities can be found on our Ways of Knowing website.

A discussion about astrophysical data within Qwaq

A discussion about astrophysical data within Qwaq

Much as we learned from those experiences, I found the sterility of the Qwaq environment also a disadvantage, and gradually I began to explore my third virtual world, SL. And soon after I encountered the feisty, cheerful, and unpredictable whirl of an actual society with its own culture, I got convinced that that was the place I wanted to set up shop.

I still feel nostalgic, looking at the snapshots of the many meetings I attended, professional as well as social, over the years.  The main reason for me personally to stop visiting SL in 2012 was not that I lost interest.  On the contrary, I kept (and still keep) looking forward to newer versions of SL which will be even more immersive.  Rather, in 2012, I became a member of a team in Japan that won a hundred million dollar grant proposal to start a new interdisciplinary institute in Tokyo, ELSI, the Earth-Life Science Institute.  The main topic of research in ELSI is the study of the origins of life, within the context of the origins of planets, including that of the Earth.  As one of the Principle Investigators, that project soon began to take up all of my time.

Piet Hut is President of YHouse (where this blog is hosted), Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a Principal Investigator and Councilor of the Earth-Life Science Institute in the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

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