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Philosophers of science from around the world come to U of T to puzzle over reality

Victoria College hosts fifth annual Society for the Metaphysics of Science Conference

Philosophers of science from around the world come to U of T to puzzle over reality

Philosophers of science from across the globe gathered at Victoria College for the fifth annual Society for the Metaphysics of Science Conference from November 7–9. As the first meagre snow of winter fell, scholars discussed topics ranging from the nature of space and time, to the comparative strengths of biological evolutionary theories.

The local organizers of the conference were U of T professors Michael Miller and Jessica Wilson, alongside PhD student Marissa Bennett; all are from the Department of Philosophy. Wilson also serves on the society’s council, and previously served as its president.

“When it came time to hold [the conference] somewhere in North America, I thought, ‘what about Toronto?’” remarked Wilson. “We have the [Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology] here, as well as a very strong philosophy department and a lot of people who are interested in metaphysics of science.”

What is ‘metaphysics of science?’

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy that asks fundamental questions about the natural world that are often not tackled by the sciences. Examples of metaphysical enigmas are the nature of causality, substance, and reality itself. Metaphysics of science is a subset of theories that explores the philosophical questions raised by the scientific method and scientific discoveries. A metaphysicist of science may choose to critique the assumptions of causality in scientific theories, for example, rather than in our day-to-day lives.

In the modern age, philosophy and science are distinct fields — but that has not always been the case. “In the seventeenth century and prior, there was hardly any distinction at all between science and philosophy. It all fell under the rubric of ‘natural philosophy,’” said Wilson.

Since then, “[science] and philosophy have… focused on somewhat different ways of investigating phenomena, which nonetheless frequently overlap,” she added.

What was discussed?

The conference proceedings demonstrated the breadth of research topics in the metaphysics of science. While a conversation about the possibility of time travel occurred in one room, a talk was simultaneously being given elsewhere on the difference between valid and bogus patterns in scientific data.

Miller gave a talk about the assumptions we make concerning some laws of nature. Why do we assume that fundamental constants — like the mass of an electron — have real-world values that can be measured to infinite decimal places? 

An unsurprising answer would be that it seems to be an expectation formed by theory, where constants are never truncated to a finite decimal place. Miller argued that reality can differ from theory: fundamental constants could be naturally imprecise.

This idea would create a big shift in how we think about measurement — imprecision would not just occur due to our experimental equipment, but because of the universe itself.

One well-attended talk was a discussion on the nature of memory by Nick Huggett, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His 1999 book Space from Zeno to Einstein has been taught in the Vic One Schawlow Stream program.

Patrick Fraser, a fourth-year undergraduate student in a physics and philosophy specialist, participated in that program in his first year. “It’s really exciting to have these kinds of [academic celebrities] showing up and asking you where to buy juice and stuff like that,” he said, recalling an interaction he had with Huggett.

Describing why he attends professional conferences as an undergraduate, Fraser said, “I really like to see what’s going on at the forefront of the field… and meeting the people actually making contributions to the field.”

Professor Katherine Brading of Duke University delivered a keynote lecture where she discussed the historical reasons for the schism between philosophy and physics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In attempting to understand the mechanics of particles, she argued, scientist-philosophers moved further toward theories that could be captured mathematically and away from more metaphysical foundations of theories of matter.

Whatever the reasons for the current divide between laboratory science and philosophical methods, conferences like these show that the theoretical connection between the two is very much alive and here to stay.

How augmented reality could impact the future of surgical training

Study demonstrates how smart glasses could be used to train surgeons

How augmented reality could impact the future of surgical training

Augmented reality could hold promise for improving surgical training, using the Osterhout Design Group (ODG) R-7 Smartglasses, according to a recent study conducted with the University of British Columbia (UBC).

A research team, which included Dr. Neil Chadha, a former fellow at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, recruited staff surgeons and resident trainees to participate in the study at Vancouver General Hospital. Resident trainees used the ODG R-7 Smartglasses to perform a synthetic surgery for educational purposes in the temporal bone cadaver drilling laboratory .

Applying the use of Osterhout Design Group R-7 Smartglasses

One main aspect of the study involved the use of a device to create an augmented reality. For the research team, the decision to use the ODG R-7 Smartglasses was simple.

“The [ODG] already had partners doing research with the R-7 Smartglasses,” said Dr. Michael Yong, a resident physician at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine, and a co-author of the study, in an interview with The Varsity.

In terms of set-up, the research team further believed that the smart glasses would be suitable to the operating room due to their battery life and wear-ability. However, Yong noted that while the maximum two-hour battery life is not currently a concern, it could pose a challenge in the future during clinical situations.

The study’s design and results

The study was completed at Vancouver General Hospital with two supervisors and five resident trainees using the temporal bone cadaver drilling laboratory.

“The temporal bone-drilling lab is… something that every residency program in [otolaryngology, which concerns the ear, nose, and throat] has access to, and so it was an easy place for us to start,” said Yong. 

After the trials, the researchers collected comments and a completed survey from the supervisors and residents participating in the study. Many comments recognized the promise of augmented reality in advancing surgical training. However, they also noted areas of improvement with the techniques.

The strongest advantage of the smart glasses was their potential to communicate remotely and exchange editable images with other practitioners. Other reviews of smart-glasses technology have noted applications, including monitoring patient vitals remotely and review patient charts on the go.

Some of the suggested improvements of the teaching experience included better lighting with the glasses, reduced time for images to be processed, and the reduction of connectivity issues. One of the more notable suggestions was to avoid the temporal cadaver bone lab for such, due to drawbacks caused by drilling.

“When you’re drilling the skull, bone dust comes up into the air,” said Yong. “Usually we wear masks and protective goggles, but the R-7 glasses are not designed to be an industrial-grade protective goggles, and so, there’s openings on the sides of it and little spaces here and there, that allow for bone dust to come in.”

Further research is needed to make the use of this technology widespread. However, Yong remarked, “It’s just a matter of getting more institutions to do these kinds of feasibility studies, to do these kinds of tests and get some feedback as to how best we can adapt this rapidly-growing industry technology to surgery… in a useful and efficient matter.”