SciBar, SciFoo, Sci woot

I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is on foo bar write-ups but I distinctly feel late to the party. Maybe it’s because the chattersphere starts buzzing the day before and doesn’t stop until two days after (see SciBarCamp FriendFeed room, twitter searches for #scifoo and #sbcpa). Maybe it’s because people had blog posts up before the first day even sank in (see the list of SciFoo blog posts). Either way, I’m hoping that this counts as fashionably late.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, the gist is that I went to two unconferences last week/end, SciBarCamp and SciFoo. An unconference is essentially a gathering of people around a common theme with no fixed schedule except what those people devise the day of. The goal is to get smart people talking to each other about their ideas, catalyzing new collaborations. As you might guess from the names, both SciBarCamp and SciFoo are loosely organized around science. Having just come back from a 10 day trip to Boston, Bainbridge Island (WA), and Seattle which included 5 days of frisbee tournaments, I only mustered the energy to microblog one session at SciBarCamp, and kept only a sparse paper notebook at SciFoo. Here, I’ll just try to capture some of the thoughts I had about these experiences.

First, SciBarCamp. This year’s event was spearheaded by Jamie McQuay, with John Cumbers, Jim Hardy, Chris Patil, and myself rounding out the organizing committee. The topics, as always, ranged all over, but personal genomics and “health 2.0″ seemed especially popular. Some of the more memorable topics were “Psychedelics – WTF?”, sustainable technologies in Afghanistan, and “Spinning Science” in the media, by Dr. Kiki of “This Week In Science” and Naomi Most of Pirate Cat radio. I met a number of folks in person whom I’d only known through the intarwebs – Martin Fenner, Duncan Hull, Andy Lang, Bosco Ho, among others. I also met Brian Malow, science comedian, who happens to have been a good friend of my favorite comedian, the late Mitch Hedberg.

After SciBarCamp ended, I had a short break until Friday evening, when SciFoo kicked off with registration and dinner at the Googleplex. Unlike SciBarCamp, SciFoo is backed by Google, Nature Publishing Group, and O’Reilly, so it is both bigger, fancier, and celebritier. It is also invite only. (How did I manage to swing an invite? I got a senior scientist blogging!) Rubbing elbows with Nobel prize winners, best selling authors, and famous inventors can certainly be intimidating. Unfortunately, Bjork never showed up; fortunately, the schwag was plentiful, including a table full of books (many by O’Reilly), moleskine type notebooks, holographic periodic tables, a puzzle by Pavel, and the requisite t-shirt and conference bag.

Though the sessions can be hit or miss (either the topic ends up being different from what you expected, or people may bring personal agendas), all are guaranteed to make you think. I attended sessions on virtual worlds (by Andy Lang and Berci Mesko), cartoon physics and art in Pixar, tricking people into liking science, digital identity (by Duncan Hull), space travel, personalized medicine, and “aliens on Earth”. Some brief thoughts on some of these:

Virtual worlds – Andy presented examples of how Second Life is being used to visualize scientific data, improve distance learning, and hold virtual conferences. Some problems are the fact that Second Life is limited to 15,000 “prims” (graphical units), which precludes detailed representations of complex molecules, but Second Life has been shown to be very useful in education. Berci presented a new alternative to Second Life called VisuLand that may be better suited towards medical research and teaching which requires no download or installation and is currently free to use.

Tricking people into liking science – Run by Jorge Cham, John Rennie, and Mariette DiChristina. The disconnect between science, media, and general public, and how to redress it, was a common theme at both SciBarCamp and SciFoo. At SciFoo, one of the session leaders suggested that the reasons people claim to be uninterested in science fall into two categories: problems of interest (“it’s boring”, “it’s irrelevant”, “it’s hard”, etc), and problems of inferiority (“I’m not smart enough”, “it’s not for someone like me”, “it doesn’t match what I believe”, etc). If you can frame the problem correctly, you can form a better solution. For example, if the problem is that it requires too much sustained concentration (i.e. “it’s hard”), then present the science in shorter snippets. If the problem is that the audience feels intellectually inferior, then reassure them that the material isn’t supposed to easy. I think the most important ideas we can convey to non-scientists are that science is about solving mysteries, failure is part of the process, and science is intrinsically a human endeavor. In fact, I started thinking that instead of tricking people into liking science, we should get more people to like the scientists themselves.

Space travel – Esther Dyson came in after a zero gravity flight earlier in the morning to tell us about her training as a backup for a future shuttle launch. Eric Anderson, the CEO of commercial space travel company Space Adventures, was also present, as was astronaut Ed Lu. The session was mostly a show and tell Q&A style between Esther/Eric/Ed and everyone else who wasn’t involved in space flight. Towards the end, a debate began over the merits of space research programs. On one side (mostly devil’s advocates but a couple true adherents perhaps) were those arguing that funding space research was frivolous and a waste of money given more immediate problems plaguing the world like poverty and disease; on the other were those convinced that the space program single handedly inspires future generations to study science and dream big, that such aspirations are what lead to innovation and keep us human. An impassioned discussion that literally started 5 minutes before the session ended.

Art and science and cartoon physics – Rob Cook from Pixar gave a crowd-pleasing presentation on how Pixar has used physics and math to achieve incredibly realistic animations of moving objects and materials, both living and non-living. One thing I particularly liked was the cycle he presented between art and technology. There is an important relationship between the two departments at Pixar, as the artists tend to suggest things they don’t know are impossible, and the tech folks are too proud to say it can’t be done. The end result is innovation. I think it’s especially useful for this relationship to extend beyond Pixar to encompass science and non-science, as one provides the story and the other makes it possible.

Aliens on EarthNathan Wolfe, a leading researcher in infectious disease and viruses, stimulated a debate over whether we might find aliens on Earth. He defined “alien” not as extraterrestrial, but as “distinct” from our current understanding of life as DNA-based. People got a little hung up on this definition at the beginning but eventually got over it only to get a little hung up on what we mean by “life”. Does it need to replicate? Does it need to take in information? Nathan is convinced that we’re far more likely to discover “alien” life on Earth than we are to discover life elsewhere in the universe (I’m inclined to agree), and is wondering what it might “look like”. Iddo wrote a great post about this topic a while ago, and he provides a nice overview of the question and a possible theory. The big question is: if there is alternate life on Earth, would we be able to recognize it?

All in all, it was great to meet so many accomplished and intelligent people. A short list of some of the people I met: Jorge Cham (author of PhD comics), Brandyn Webb (actually met at SciBarCamp first), Ariel Waldman (also met at SciBarCamp) of SpaceHack.org, Timo Hannay (Nature), Bruce Hood (author of SuperSense), John Gilbey (also met at SciBarCamp), Alf Eaton (Nature), George Church of Knome and the Personal Genome Project, Paul Biondich and Burke Mamlin of OpenMRS, Chris Holmes (of GeoServer, I think), Reshma Shetty of Gingko Bioworks, Emily Chenette and Erika Check Hayden (Nature), Juliana Rotich, and more. I did not meet Bill Nye.

But SciFun didn’t end with SciFoo. On Monday, I went with Brandyn Webb and Dan Barcay (who was also at SciFoo and works on Google Earth) to visit fellow SciFoo-er Simon Quellen Field, who now spends his time making science toys on his farm in Los Gatos. All Brandyn had to say was “parrot farm” and I was there. Indeed, there were many many parrots and exotic birds of all kinds, dozens of chickens, about seven goats, and two alpacas in addition to the usual dog and cat. The goats and alpacas nominally serve to keep the brush nibbled down as a fire break but are also lots of fun to look at. After meeting the animals, we trekked across a catenary bridge to his tree house, beyond which lay rope netting stretched 30 feet off the ground between several trees. Another rope bridge beyond that led to a second tree house still in the making.

Inside the house lay even more treasures, all sorts of toys and gadgets to captivate minds of all ages. Since we’d missed his liquid nitrogen and helium demonstration at SciFoo, he let us play with some on his driveway. We admired the Sun Oven, which acts like a slow cooker using only heat generated from the sun. And we of course took in the breathtaking view of the Lexington resevoir from the air chairs on his deck (I didn’t have my camera, otherwise this post would be littered with photos). Mac Cowell (of DIYBio and 100ideas) and John Cumbers (from SciBarCamp) showed up later and started off another tour of the premises accompanied by Simon’s copious knowledge and experiences.

Many hours later, we bade our temporary goodbyes. Temporary because we left with more opportunities to meet up and commune over science than before. Simon hosts a science or inventors’ type meetup at the City Pub in Redwood City on Wednesdays, and suggested a semi-regular SciFoo-type potluck gathering which would be lots of fun as well.

Long story short – SciBarCamp and SciFoo have shown me that there is tons of cool sciencey stuff going on in the Bay Area and in the world and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

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4 Responses to SciBar, SciFoo, Sci woot

  1. purplesque says:

    A very well written post. I’m no scientist, but I love science, and whats happening now with Scifoo, SciBarCamp and TED is fascinating.

    Your mention of the Sun Oven reminded me of a solar cooker we had growing up in India. Food was kept in several different containers under the glass, and would get cooked perfectly in a few hours. It didn’t become very popular because all you could really do was boil beans and rice, and the food had to go back to the stove for ‘finishing’. A great idea thats need revisiting..

  2. Chris Lasher says:

    Great reading summary, Shirley. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

  3. Mike Lambert says:

    Nice writeup. I remember attending the previous year’s SciFoo as one of the volunteer grunts. So congrats on getting there on your own merit. Definitely some amazing speakers and talks, from the practical plans for how to make solar energy work and scale for this country (Chris Uhlik’s talk), to crazy plans for using computers to derive the microbiology/genetic/protein interactions (seemed a bit out there to many people), all the way to 23andMe’s mostly-self-promotion talk. I had a lot of fun…I’m kinda sad I missed out on the opportunity to do the volunteer thing again. Ah well, maybe next year.

  4. Pingback: A visit to the “bird farm” « I was lost but now I live here

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