Just Wondering spoke with Emilia, director of the North Seattle Gravity Research Center, on 30 January, 2011.
JW: Will you briefly describe your organization and tell us what you’re doing here at the NSGRC?
E: The team consists of myself in both a directorial and a lead researcher role, and I have several highly trained assistants working with me. As for the NSGRC, the name really says it all. We’re researching gravity. What it is, what it does, how reliable it is, plus some collateral investigations, such as what happens as a result of the act of testing itself.
JW: What does that look like in practice?
E: I drop stuff, chiefly.
JW: What kind of stuff do you drop, and from where?
E: We use a number of objects carefully chosen for their properties. One is the Nippler, a teething implement that looks a little like a World War II underwater mine. Round Shakey is a combination teething implement and a rattle. Another is called Snappy Girl. For a launch platform I use a special elevated research chair with a flat workspace mounted in front of me.
JW: It looks like a high chair with a tray.
E: It’s an elevated research chair.
JW: Your own sister was director previously and still has an emeritus role here, isn’t that true?
E: That’s right. Mara did some pioneering early work, particularly in edibles, but she’s grown older and can’t do the pure research anymore.
JW: How does growing older impede “pure” research?
E: I mean, you obviously need to be focused on the behaviors. I drop this, it bounces toward the stove. I drop it again, it bounces under the chair. As you get older, experience skews your thinking. You think you know things. You start anticipating results. You start averaging things out, using your imagination. All good skills in life, but as a research institution we have to stay on task. It’s just observing what happens.
JW: What kind of things are you working on now?
E: I can’t say too much about it yet, but just this morning I was experimenting with using one implement to push another one off the workspace. That’s pretty exciting for us, the whole indirect agency thing.
JW: Why? What does that suggest?
E: Like I said, it’s really early and the results aren’t conclusive yet. All I can say about it is that the idea of indirect agency seems to fit some other theories we’re developing, things we’re seeing in other areas.
JW: What have you learned lately that you’re confident about enough to talk about?
E: I’ve noticed a correlation between the number of things dropped and the number of things on my tray…workspace, I mean. Like it gets kinda quiet and boring after I’ve dropped a certain number of things, and this number — we think! — is often, maybe always, the same number of things I started with. But I can say for sure that there is a correlation there.
JW: You mentioned “other areas” and “collateral investigations”. It’s been suggested that your dropping studies are really just cover for your real study of your assistants.
E: Is there a question? I didn’t hear a question.
JW: Are you in fact studying your assistants? They pick up the things you drop over and over again. You said they are highly trained, but they’re unpaid. Their behavior could be seen as confusing. Are you studying this phenomenon?
E: Parallel research is ongoing into the motivations of my assistants, yes. They aren’t paid, it’s all volunteer, which, you have to admit, is pretty weird. I’m developing a theory that the assistants view this activity as a kind of investment, and several colleagues have suggested that my assistants might in fact be studying me. This line of inquiry quickly gets us into the hypermechanics of reciprocal observation, which is like string theory. I don’t think you want to go there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do…