Adventures in GoogleLand

By Mark Trodden | August 21, 2006 7:18 am

Having arrived back about a week ago from my extended weekend in GoogleLand, I am finally ready to spill the beans about the mysterious and stimulating Science Foo Camp.

I arrived at my hotel on Friday afternoon and, after a brief rest, joined some other attendees in the lobby and waited for our ride to show up. I felt a bit like Charlie, waiting with Grandpa Joe for Willy Wonka to turn up and open the gates to the chocolate factory.

Our bus dropped us at the fabled Googleplex, and throngs of “camp counselors” (young Google employees) escorted us to the registration desk, after which we had our photos taken, and wrote lists of topics and words that described our interests below. These were then taped to a large board in the main hall.

While we were restricted to a small part of the complex, which itself is huge, I saw enough of the place for it to become clear that Google must be a terrific place to work. I recall the mid 90’s, when dot-com workplaces took care of every possible employee need, without charge. Although that bubble burst violently, at Google at least the culture seems to have retained that spirit. It isn’t just the walls of snack selections and beverage choices that are dotted around the place, or the outstanding cafeteria and catering staff, or the on-staff nutritionist. It is also the clear thought that has gone into constructing a collaborative environment that must make it particularly fertile for innovation. For our meeting, the “foo bar” helped also

Our first and only scheduled meeting was an introductory session in the largest meeting room. Here, after welcoming words from Tim O’Reilly (of, well, O’Reilly Media), and Timo Hannay (of Nature), we spent a half hour or so introducing ourselves, one-by-one, to the 150-200 other participants. And it turns out that my co-campers were a truly eclectic bunch; scientists, technologists, engineers, computer scientists, publishers, and science fiction writers.

It quickly became apparent that the intention was to throw this group together for a couple of days of barely-structured mayhem. Our host turned around a large board, with open hour-long slots in about ten rooms of differing capacities listed on it. We were instructed to “swarm the board” – rush up and enter discussion/debate/demonstration/educational sessions on any topic we thought interesting, with the resulting tapestry of ideas then forming the basis from which one could plan one’s own schedule, much as one does when picking through parallel session talks at a regular conference. Here’s a selection of the topics:

  • Sending Stuff to Mars
  • Mysteries of the human Genome
  • A Cool Mathematical Idea from your Field in 15 Minutes
  • Education in “Second Life” and the Future of Collaborative Learning
  • The World Wide Telescope
  • Coping with Politicized Science and “Scientized” Politics
  • Open Science Discussion: Open Peer Review, Science Blogs, Science Wikis
  • The Nascent WEBMIND
  • Science and Spirituality
  • How Anti-Copying Technology is Bad for: Science, Competition, Art, Expression, Innovation, …, Humanity
  • Bioethics
  • A.I. in Planetary Exploration (Titan)
  • Self-organization in Evolution

I could go on and on – these are just a somewhat random picks from one of the wikis that I still have access to. I certainly didn’t attend all of these sessions, but I think it is fair to say that I learned something from almost all of those that I did participate in.

I tried to choose a spread of topics to sample the different kinds of thinking that were represented by the range of participants. Some of my sessions were rather close to what I do, such as the discussion of various mathematical properties of images, initiated by a well-known physicist, or the rapid-fire summary of interesting mathematical techniques from different fields. But some others were wildly different (if you haven’t heard of Project Orion, you should take a look at it – it is a hilarious and terrifying example of what one could get money for in the fifties).

One session I attended concerned technology that is designed to prevent the free distribution of legally purchased digital entertainment. The discussion leader was a science fiction writer and technology expert who has been extremely active in this area. It was fascinating to hear his perspective. This wasn’t about stealing music instead of legally downloading it. Rather, the discussion centered on the restrictions that are placed on you after you have purchased it. The canonical example was Apple‘s iTunes and iPod (both of which I use frequently), their constraints on the number of devices one can listen to the music on, and the deliberate decision to use a format that means that your downloaded music won’t play on any other player that you might want to buy.

I went to a demonstration of the immersive, interactive online “game”, Second Life, which some participants felt had tremendous educational possibilities. Second Life has to be seen to be believed. One the one hand, it really feels like a game, and those of us who grew up with some of the earlier incarnations of role-playing games will recognize many of the features. However, in Second Life one is not trying to achieve some pre-specified goal, but instead you are supposed to live out an extension of your physical life. While this clearly isn’t for everyone, and I’m not sure I see myself using it any time soon, I did see that there were a number of ways in which one could use this technology for innovative educational purposes. Keep your eye on it, because the numbers of people participating is growing and, interestingly for educational issues, the age and gender mix of participants is much more reflective of that in real society than is true of regular computer games.

As a final example of the kinds of activities I took part in, I went to a session that was billed on the board as “Science and Religion”, but which the moderator actually wanted to be more broadly about Science and Spirituality. I don’t think my views on such things are a secret to any regular Cosmic Variance reader. However, I did want to attend, because I am fascinated by the thought processes that, in clearly highly intelligent and accomplished people, can lead to, in my view, a gaping hole in their intellectual rigor.

The session was fine but somewhat frustrating. There was much discussion of spiritual experience, but I tried and tried to get a clean definition of this and was unsuccessful. In particular, I wanted a definition that would make it clear whether “spiritual” was supposed to mean a type of feeling that was mysterious and enjoyable, but could in principle be due to complex biochemical and neurological processes, or whether “spiritual” was intended to imply something outside of the physical view of reality. I think there were people from both camps in the room, but I did have a hard time getting a clear answer anyway and felt a little frustrated by how some technically educated people can view certain aspects of the world so uncritically.

The meeting ended on Sunday afternoon and, after the closeout session I went for a couple of beers with some people I’d met there, before heading up to JoAnne‘s place, where she had invited me to dinner. We had a lovely time – it’s always great to see JoAnne – and enjoyed fine food and wine, and I was even lucky enough to see the famous tomato plants just a few days before their problems developed.

When I got to the airport for my redeye flight I felt tired, but happy and satisfied; and that’s where the fun ended and a small personal nightmare began. For as I waited to board the plane, a rumbling of the belly began which, by the time I had taken my seat, had reached an unignorable crescendo. The accompanying symptoms were unmistakable – I had a pretty nasty case of food poisoning. Since the door was still open, I asked to get off the plane and, between rushing off to deal with symptoms that we need not go into here, was able to reschedule a flight for the next morning and book into a hotel at the airport. I spent the rest of the night extremely unhappy, and managed to fly out the next morning, dealing with a few delays and finally getting home late on Monday. Not a fun way to end a great weekend. I can’t think of what might have given me the food poisoning. Certainly it was far too soon for it to have been any of the wonderful treats that JoAnne served me, and the Google food was so fresh and good that I think I will settle on blaming it on a bad pint in the mid-afternoon.

But my overriding memories will be of Science Foo Camp as a wonderful experience. It was well conceived and well organized, and Google was a splendid host. They provided us with a wonderful space, great food and drink, and a group of smart, knowledgeable and helpful counselors who made the whole thing run so smoothly. I can’t thank the Nature, O’Reilly and Google folks enough for their invitation, their hospitality and their vision in putting together such a wacky and fun weekend. I would definitely go back; although their plan is to try to get mostly new people each year they do this.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and Society, Travel

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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