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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