In 1997, the Kira Institute was created by five founding members:
- Piet Hut, astrophysicist from IAS in Princeton
- Steven Tainer, philosopher and teacher from IWR in Berkeley
- Roger Shepard, cognitive psychologist from Stanford
- Bas van Fraassen, philosopher of science from Princeton
- Arthur Zajonc, physicist from Amherst
Their aim was to investigate the limits of scientific knowledge, and their fundamental question was "Starting from a scientific worldview, what else is true?" From 1998 through 2002, each year they organized a two-week summer school at Amherst College for graduate students with an interest in science. During that period, the five original Kira faculty members met for twenty-two weekend workshops in which they held ongoing discussions about science and other ways of knowing.
Kira Summer Schools
The Kira Institute conducted a series of yearly summer schools, aimed at bringing together graduate students from various disciplines within science, as well as within the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. They engage in an open Socratic dialog, centered around science and experience. The first summer school was held during Aug. 2-15, 1998, on the Amherst College campus, with support from the Fetzer Institute. This became an annual event, held in late July to early August between 1998-2002.
Ways of Knowing
From 2002 to the present, Piet Hut and Steven Tainer continued these discussions in an even more intensive mode. By increasing the time allocated to discussions by a factor ten, Hut and Tainer reached the point in 2006 to begin to publish on the web what they had learned from both WoK and Kira.
Embarking on Virtual Worlds
The next year, 2007, saw the start of a new experiment, conducted in various three-dimensional on-line virtual worlds, first in Videoranch, then in Qwaq, then in Second Life. Hut and Tainer took a similar approach pioneered in the Kira summer schools, but with the major difference that virtual worlds allowed a much higher frequency of meetings and participation across geographical boundaries.
Virtual World Initiatives
Starting in 2008, Kira started Play as Being, in the virtual world of Second Life. Play as Being (PaB) is an activity that is a natural outgrowth of WoK, which itself was the next step for Hut and Tainer after their initial work with the Kira Institute.
In the summer of 2008, the Kira Institute went through a major transformation, beginning with the addition of new board members to the remaining two of the original founding members, Piet Hut and Steven Tainer. The new Kira Board members are Saki Bailey, Stormerne Hunt, Stephanie Smith, Davina Chan, Eiko Ikegami, Robert Magrisso, and Zenon Pylyshyn. These members together represent a diversity of disciplines and backgrounds including: astrophysics, contemplative traditions, cognitive science, psychology, sociology, history, medicine, law, and computer science.
Five members: Saki Bailey, Stormerne Hunt, Piet Hut, Stephanie Smith, and Steven Tainer began to meet in Second Life on a weekly basis to discuss the future of the new Kira, to redraft its Mission statement, and to establish its identity as an interdisciplinary institute based in the virtual world. An interdisciplinary institute seemed a natural way to explore the "What else is true?" question in a variety of contexts, and Second Life provided an ideal playful environment in which to engage in this line of inquiry.
A first attempt at a new Mission Statement
After many weeks of deliberation and revision, the Board converged on a new Kira Mission Statement (thanks to Steven Tainer who was central to this Mission rewriting effort.) The new Kira's explorations in science and "science in context" were guided by three principles: pluralism, critical thinking, and playfulness. This new mission spawned a vision for a completely virtual institute made.
Kira Team and Virtual Institute Emerge
As the vision for the new Institute developed the five most active Board Members took on more defined roles within the Virtual Kira Institute (VKI), forming the initial core of the Kira Team:
- Piet Hut: Director of the VKI
- Steven Tainer: Program Director for VKI Campus
- Stormerne Hunt: Virtual Worlds Coordinator
- Stephanie Smith: Kira Café Outreach Coordinator
- Saki Bailey: Executive Coordinator and Project Manager
By mid October the marvelous Kira Café was complete (thanks to our very talented Virtual Worlds Coordinator Storm Hunt), the new Kira website was launched (thanks to creative and energetic Executive Coordinator Saki Bailey), http://www.kira.org/, we began to host events (thanks to the very resourceful Stephanie Smith and Piet Hut), and Kira applied for its first grant.
In the coming months the team gained four new members: Robert Knop as Kira Campus's Sciences Faculty Advisor, Ken Brady as Science Park Outreach Representative, Yuko Wada as our Kira Japan representative, and Phil Youngblood as Outreach Coordinator.
Virtual Kira Institute
Kira began in December a Happy Hour Speaker Series in the Kira Café, drawing large audiences and attracting speakers from a wide range of disciplines and on a variety of topics from planetary formation to the function of dreams to the history and meaning of “critical thinking” in science. This series gave Kira a foothold into the academic community in Second Life.
Soon after we launched a suite of new workshops in the Café. These created a foundation for the Kira Campus and a full fledged virtual institute. The number of workshops continued to increase, and the
number of attendees also increased. Although the Café was spacious, we created a further double-size venue, the Kira Dome auditorium, for our more popular workshops.
The Mission Statement and the website revisited
In the Spring of 2009, the Kira Board and the Kira Team met over the course of several weeks to reformulate our mission statement in the light of our successes in Second Life. We had seen Kira in action in a virtual world, we had heard the feedback from students and attendees, and we wanted to share our collective inspiration so that others would have a quicker and clearer idea of the energy behind Kira.
We concentrated not only on our reasons for originally creating the Institute, but on the twin values of universality and involvement that we had been putting into practice. We wanted our mission statement to portray the dynamism that our collaborators so often said they felt, and we also redesigned parts of our website to reflect that.
The Virtual Kira Institute currently
In the Fall of 2010, in a sustained global atmosphere of tight funding, Kira consolidated its activities into a smaller area of virtual land, equivalent to a little over a single 16 acre region of Second Life. The Kira Dome was mothballed. Kira Japan was moved to be with all other Kira projects. The Kira Cafe was reengineered to be less demanding of virtual world resources and placed on donated private land adjacent to the other main Kira activities. The Kira Science Park was dismantled but the enormous iconic sculpture known as the "Kira Molecule" was repositioned over active Kira project lands.