SFI postdocs gathered for 72 Hours of Science in May 2022

Half an hour from downtown Santa Fe in a sprawling Airbnb high in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, SFI’s postdoctoral fellows gathered for two nights and three days of collaborative, generative science: 72 Hours of Science. First launched in 2016, 72 Hours of Science — or 72HS — brings SFI’s postdocs together for an intense experiment: how much can they accomplish in a short amount of time? In just three days, the group identifies a meaningful research question, then takes the research as far as they can.

Past groups have explored the dynamics of beneficial epidemics; analyzed trends in world records; and speculated on the implications of tri-parental biology.

But with a two-year pandemic-induced interruption, the current fellows had only heard stories about 72HS. “We had a full generation of postdocs who had never experienced it before, so we were trying to recreate it from what we heard and were told by previous organizers,” says Complexity Postdoctoral Fellow Helena Miton, who spearheaded this year’s event. 

The first big challenge was finding a project that could produce meaningful cross-disciplinary work, says Program Postdoctoral Fellow Maell Cullen. The fellows could all suggest projects, then everyone voted anonymously. The winning question engaged both math- and social-science-oriented researchers: Can we use statistics to describe the evolution of modern mathematical notation? “The project that won was broad enough in scope to include everyone, but that meant it was very ambitious,” says Cullen.   

Mathematics is a cognitive tool and its symbols — the notation — allow people to communicate ideas, both within a specific field and across disciplines, explains Miton. “We were interested in investigating whether ideas that travel between fields also travel with their notations.” 

And, the symbols and grammar of mathematics aren’t static — meanings can change, and people can invent new symbols and new grammar.

In past years, a goal has been to post a paper to the arXiv within the 72-hour time limit. “We removed that requirement this year,” says Miton. 

However, the group left with ideas for new collaborations, and that’s among the most important outcomes of any 72HS. It’s a retreat, but one that deepens relationships and sparks new ideas by engaging everyone in a common challenge. “It’s very informative, and in a very different way than just talking together,” says Miton. 

Despite the intensity of the weekend, Cullen says, “I felt genuinely refreshed. Most projects go on for a long time. This was discrete, and I got a sense of community. It was like a working holiday.”