12:06 AM September 16th, 2008
The SciFoo experience begins before the first session – even before we get to the Googleplex (Get thee to the Googleplex!).
There was the Wiki, as previously discussed, for first virtual encounters. Then SciFoo weekend arrived.
On Friday afternoon, my taller half and I checked into the Wild Palms Hotel in Sunnyvale. Sadly, jealously, Tara would not be joining me at the unconference. As I frolicked at the vast Google empire, she’d be getting to know every square inch of our little hotel room. Whereas I’d be interacting with 200 scientists and science and science fiction writers, she’d be interfacing with a stack of science and science fiction books. I’d have Neal Stephenson; she’d have The Diamond Age. I’d have Ann Druyan; she’d have Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.
Shuttles would begin ferrying campers to the Googleplex around 5:15pm. Tara and I went down to the hotel lobby a little early to join the gathering crowd. We rounded a corner and bumped right into Esther and George Dyson, sitting exactly as captured here in their natural habitat by Betsy Devine. They were very sweet and wished us first-timers a great experience.
Minutes later, Prabhat Agarwal introduced himself. Prabhat is a former condensed-matter physicist who now works for the Future and Emerging Technologies Unit at the European Commission. His job is to identify and support new areas of information-related science, and he told us about his personal interest in how we recognize something as new. I’m still convinced that we rely mostly on the new-concept smell.
Jim Hardy has a pic from a few minutes later of Tara and me talking to Brian Cox and his wife Gia Milinovich. Tara and Gia are in opposition, and I’m nearly totally eclipsed by Brian. John Gilbey’s left eye makes a special uncredited appearance. [Jim sends along this link to a bigger version]
This was the first of several conversations I’d have with Brian and Gia. Brian is a particle physicist who works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. Gia calls herself a science groupie and broadcaster. She’s worked on some pretty cool stuff like the CERN podcast and Walking with Robots and the new X-Files movie.
They are not only a couple but also a couple of the people I’d see the most throughout the weekend. We ended up in a lot of the same sessions, although I was sorry to miss Brian’s LHC session.
We talked a bit about the LHC and laughed about the well-publicized fear that it would create micro-black holes that would destroy the Earth. Although there is a chance that MBH’s will be created, it would require that the universe contain a few extra unseen dimensions, an aspect that is wished for by string theorists and others but still unproven (at least by us terrans in our local 4-dimensional spacetime realm). Also, if created, the black holes would be so small and likely disappear so quickly (due to Hawking Radiation) that they may be undetectable by the LHC’s sensors. A far cry from devouring the planet.
For an excellent fictional treatment of a similar catastrophe on Mars, check out Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning short story, The Hole Man. Much fun!
A few minutes before we started boarding the shuttles, Steve Goldfinger introduced himself to me and Tara. He lives up in the Marin area, as I recall, and we live in SF. Steve is co-founder of Global Footprint Network. We sat together on the ride to the Googleplex, discussing sustainability (his field) and science comedy (mine).
Steve also mentioned having been impressed with some science fiction by Kim Stanley Robinson – although we laughed when he accidentally called him “Kim Stanley Andersen,” which I suggested was a mash-up with Hans Christian Andersen.
I don’t know which Robinson work he was talking about but sustainability was a major theme (which it often is for Robinson) and it was not the Mars Trilogy (perhaps the Three Californias Trilogy or his most recent novels Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below).
As we arrived at Google, Steve and I exchanged business cards. I had a great time chatting with him, but after we left the shuttle, I only ever saw him in passing perhaps once more.