Science Foo Camp 2008: Chapter 1 – The Wiki & What I Missed

[I’ve made one pre­vi­ous Sci­Foo post, in antic­i­pa­tion (and trep­i­da­tion) of the approach­ing week­end.]

Where to begin? How to cap­ture the essence of such an over­whelm­ing expe­ri­ence? Nature! O’Reilly! The Google­plex! 200 cer­ti­fied sci­ence geniuses! No less than four (4) Nobel Lau­re­ates! And other incom­plete sen­tences!

By design, Sci­ence Foo Camp has no real agenda until we get there and cre­ate it, and even then, it’s com­pletely flex­i­ble. But, about three months in advance, a wiki was estab­lished for every­one to post to with descrip­tions of our­selves and ideas for ses­sions we’d like to see or lead. This was a great oppor­tu­nity to learn a lit­tle bit about our fel­low campers and to be that much more pre­pared by the time we got there, since time would be so pre­cious.

[Note to Lee Smolin: I’m not sure about the rest of the Uni­verse but, at Sci­Foo, the flow of time is very real and very fast.]

If you ever get the chance to attend Sci­Foo, take advan­tage of the wiki. Start early. Most of the campers posted brief bios with their areas of research and inter­ests and links to home­pages, blogs, com­pa­nies, and orga­ni­za­tions.  For the ones that didn’t, there’s Google.  If they’re at Sci­Foo, you won’t have any trou­ble find­ing ’em. Most of them have Wikipedia entries.

My only wish for “improv­ing” the amaz­ing crea­ture that is Sci­Foo would be to lengthen it just a bit. I want more!  Per­haps extend the Fri­day and Sun­day to full days. Give us just a lit­tle extra time to take it all in. There are so many fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple, so many intrigu­ing ses­sions.  There’s no way to meet every­one or attend every ses­sion you’d like. With as many as four­teen (14!) simul­ta­ne­ous ses­sions in each hour time slot, no mat­ter how much you expe­ri­ence, there’s still a sense that you missed out on a lot of cool stuff.

Of course, even if it were a week long, I’m sure I’d feel the same.

Betsy Devine\'s morning session

For the first ses­sion of the week­end, I missed Carl Diet­rich’s “Energy for Long Dis­tance Trans­porta­tion” because I wanted to catch Betsy Devine’s “5-minute Talks by Smart Peo­ple About Web 2.0 Tools for Sci­ence” (fea­tur­ing Tim O’Reilly, Esther Dyson & Anne Woj­ci­cki, Chris Ander­son, Barend Mons, and Vic­to­ria Stod­den).

And I missed Carl again, for the last ses­sion of the week­end, when he talked about his fly­ing car, because I wanted to see Brother Guy Con­sol­magno explain why the Pope has an astronomer (and a mete­orite col­lec­tion!).

I really should’ve been at “Trans­form­ing Edu­ca­tion – Mak­ing Sci­ence Fun and Rel­e­vant for Kids and Stu­dents,” but I wanted to hear Aubrey de Grey, Chris Patil, and Attila Csor­das talk about Aging and Life Exten­sion.

After a fas­ci­nat­ing chat Sat­ur­day morn­ing with Eric Wasser­mann on the 15-minute shut­tle ride from the hotel to the Google­plex (about the expe­ri­ence of spir­i­tu­al­ity and the illu­sion of con­scious­ness), I would’ve loved to have sat in on his ses­sion a few hours later about the ethics and impli­ca­tions of brain enhance­ment. But I also wanted to con­tribute to “Seduc­ing the Pub­lic with Sci­ence” (ini­ti­ated – on the wiki – by John Gilbey and Jenny Rohn – and includ­ing Tim O’Reilly,Seducing the Public - Tim O'Reilly, Marc Hodosh, Kevin Grazier, et al Ann Druyan, Marc Hodosh, Ben Goldacre, Euge­nie Scott and oth­ers). And, at the exact same time, I was miss­ing NASA Ames Direc­tor Pete Wor­den’s ses­sion on Set­tling Mars, and “LHC: The Uni­verse and All That” with Brian Cox, Max Tegmark, Mar­tin Rees, and Betsy’s hus­band, Nobel Lau­re­ate Frank Wilczek!

Impos­si­ble choices that have to be made!

I missed Paul Stamets’ ses­sion on How Fungi Can Save the World, as well as Paul Davies’ ses­sion on Mul­ti­ple Ori­gins of Life and a “Shadow Bios­phere” on Earth, and ses­sions on the World­Wide Tele­scope and brain read­ing neural pros­thet­ics, the future of quan­tum com­put­ing, 23andMe, build­ing bet­ter cli­mate mod­els, and sev­eral more – all in the Sat­ur­day 4pm time slot – because I wanted to sit in on a ses­sion with Lee Smolin, Max Tegmark, and Gar­rett Lisi called “Incu­bat­ing Adven­tur­ous Sci­ence and the FQXi.”

It wasn’t until Sun­day morn­ing, when I got into a great con­ver­sa­tion with the won­der­ful Dan Janzen about cater­pil­lars and moths, that I real­ized I shouldn’t have missed his pre­sen­ta­tion the day before on DNA bar­cod­ing the world’s species – all 10,000,000 of them.

But what could I do?  I was up to my ears in dark mat­ter – pick­ing the brain of Patri­cia Bur­chat, head of the Physics depart­ment at Stan­ford, who helped me finally under­stand how we could know – from our nar­row van­tage point – that the expan­sion rate of the Uni­verse has increased.

I could go on. And on. Expand­ing like the Uni­verse. And that’s what the week­end was really about.

Look­ing over the list of campers, I fig­ure I had sub­stan­tial, inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions with at least 50 dif­fer­ent peo­ple, on prob­a­bly 50 dif­fer­ent top­ics – plus, I attended about a dozen ses­sions, ask­ing ques­tions or con­tribut­ing com­ments dur­ing quite a few.

And I enter­tained per­haps the smartest crowd I’ve ever played with 45 min­utes of sci­ence humor at my own sur­pris­ingly well-attended ses­sion, Sat­ur­day night after din­ner (while, just down the hall, Mar­tin Rees and Nick Bostrom led a somber dis­cus­sion called “Exis­ten­tial Risks & Global Cat­a­strophic Risks.”)

There was some­thing for every­one.

In the end, there were some peo­ple – like Jim Hardy and Chris Patil and Brian Cox and his wife Gia Mili­novich and John Gilbey and Nick Bostrom and David Bauer and Lars Jeppe­sen and Simon Quellen Field – with whom I had mul­ti­ple chances to chat. And, yet, there are scores of peo­ple I never met. I had no idea (until I was back home in San Fran­cisco) that there were four Nobel Lau­re­ates among us; I met only one. On the final day there were some faces that didn’t even look famil­iar to me… had they really been here all week­end?

[more to come]

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Discussion

  • Albert

    9:51 am
    Aug-19-2008
    Reply

    Sounds like an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence. I’m look­ing for­ward to the rest of your report.

  • Thaths

    12:39 pm
    Aug-19-2008
    Reply

    Next time don’t miss out on the what­ever talk George Dyson is giv­ing. They are con­sis­tently amaz­ing whether he is talk­ing about the A-Bomb or the pio­neers of rock­etry or com­put­ing or genet­ics.

  • Brian Malow

    12:35 pm
    Aug-24-2008
    Reply

    Thaths,

    I wish I had seen more of George Dyson – although I did sit in on one ses­sion to which he con­tributed (Mar­tin Rees and Nick Bostrom’s ses­sion on Life in the Uni­verse). But I would’ve liked to have seen more of him.

    Too many choices!

  • Betsy Devine

    7:41 pm
    Aug-25-2008
    Reply

    That was indeed an amaz­ing week­end, and I enjoyed meet­ing you very much.

    I must add that my ses­sion title you liked “Five Minute Talks by Smart Peo­ple ..” was a bril­liant sug­ges­tion by Linda Stone to replace my much less excit­ing descrip­tion of “Light­ning Talks” which would have been worse even if the pro­gram didn’t typo it up into “Light­ing Talks”…

  • gia

    9:38 am
    Aug-28-2008
    Reply

    Brian, I’ve meant to respond to this for weeks now! it was so great to meet you and hope­fully we shall meet again in some other amaz­ing, bril­liant, bizarre, excit­ing, enlight­en­ing, mind-bending, freak­ish, vibrant, insane set­ting!

  • […] was the Wiki, as pre­vi­ously dis­cussed, for first vir­tual encoun­ters.  Then Sci­Foo week­end […]

  • […] pic­ture was taken by my friend John Gilbey dur­ing a ses­sion at Sci­Foo 2008 enti­tled “Seduc­ing the Pub­lic With […]

  • sandrar

    3:36 pm
    Sep-10-2009
    Reply

    Hi! I was surf­ing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! San­dra. R.

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