Sofia Science Festival 2017: “Big Data” with Timandra Harkness

Written by on May 10, 2017 in People - Comments Off on Sofia Science Festival 2017: “Big Data” with Timandra Harkness

The Sofia Science Festival hosts acclaimed scientists, including some who have other jobs too. Timandra Harkness is a mathematician, a radio show host and stand-up comedian. At times, she exerts all of those professions in one. This applies when she writes books, such as “Big Data: Does Size Matter?“, in which she combines science with entertainment, or when she talks about science in a way only a comedian could, on her Radio 4 show. Imanuel Marcus spoke to her.

The Sofia Globe (TSG): When I need to urinate at a restaurant and want my privacy at the urinal, how can mathematics help me?

Timandra Harkness: You are lucky. Two very fine mathematicians called Evangelos Kranakis and Danny Krizanc wrote a paper called the Urinal Problem, in which they suggest the best strategy to minimise the probability that somebody will stand beside you. I recommend reading the entire paper, but in short: Stand at the far end, away from the door.

TSG: What are our chances of dying by alien abduction?

Timandra Harkness: Theoretically, that is very hard to calculate as it is an extremely unlikely event on which we have no previous data. But for practical purposes – zero.

TSG: To most people, science and comedy are very different. They are opposites. Not to you though. Why?

Timandra Harkness: Science is often seen as something mysterious, remote, and above us. But in reality it’s just another human activity, done by fallible human beings. So it’s perfect material for comedy, because it brings together the sublime and the ridiculous, the lofty and the absurd. The idea that we live in one of an infinite number of universes, each slightly different, is mind-blowing. But it also implies that there is a universe out there in which Rihanna wrote a book on Big Data and I recorded “We Found Love”. Which is just silly. I’d look rubbish in her stage outfits.

TSG: Let’s look at the future. Many of us look at it by checking tomorrow’s TV programme. You take a more scientific approach, e.g. on your Radio 4 show. Could you give us examples for ideas set to shape our future, which you have recently explored?

Timandra Harkness: In the new series, we look at the future of health, which looks as if it will involve a lot of data, including our data collected from devices that sit on or even under our skin. Also the future of living in space, which changed some of my ideas. I still want to travel into space, but when I think about the fact that I might have to live the rest of my life in an artificial environment, or that my family might grow up on another world and then evolve so they’re unable ever to return to earth, I’m not sure how I feel about that. And we’re still making the programme on the Future of Sin, which should be interesting.

TSG: “Big Data: Does Size Matter?” is the title of your book, which was just released. And it is the title of your speech at the Sofia Science Festival. It is a sensitive subject. We all try to read and interpret data in Excel files. It seems like we can’t get enough of them. On the other hand, we complain about the data flow and demand data protection. What is our problem?

Timandra Harkness: Big Data does bring dilemmas. It certainly has vast potential to improve our lives. To get the best out of it, we need to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and link together different types of data. But that also means we may lose some of our privacy, as people can find out more about us by making connections between different parts of our lives. And we may no longer understand how the AI is reaching its conclusions. Even the people who built an AI like Google Deep Mind now say it’s like a black box. Although they created it, they don’t understand what’s going on inside it. A bit like having a teenage child, I guess.

TSG: Whom or what do you connect with Bulgaria? Have you been to the country before?

Timandra Harkness: I have visited before, to see the first FameLab Bulgaria competition, and again to train the FameLab finalists in their Masterclass in Science Communication. So the indefatigable Lyubov Kostova is the force that drew me to Bulgaria, and I am very excited to be coming back for the Science Festival.

TSG: Thank you a lot.

There is, of course, much more on the crowded programme of the 2017 Sofia Science Festival, including the numerous presentations in Bulgarian. For further details of the programme, and on how to buy tickets or reserve free seats, please visit the Festival’s website.

The Sofia Globe and Bulgaria Now are media partners of the 2017 Sofia Science Festival.

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About the Author

Imanuel Marcus, the founder of foreignersandfriends.com, is Associate Editor of The Sofia Globe.