Letter from SciFoo: The joys and sorrows of the Unconference

By Carl Zimmer | August 3, 2010 11:47 am

scifooThis morning I am sitting down at my desk with a small red notebook with the words “Google: Open Source Programs Office” on the cover. It is filled with my scrawlings from a meeting this weekend at Google Headquarters, known as SciFoo. The notebook was part of a standard meeting goody bag SciFoo dispensed, along with one of those very heavy plastic cubes that meeting organizers love to engrave as a memento of a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Since I never check baggage when I fly, I left the cube behind. SciFoo was a wonderful meeting, but not without room for improvement. I can sum my feelings up this way: love the small, empty notebook for recording thoughts, not so fond of the heavy, self-celebrating cube.

SciFoo is the product of a three-way media/technology union between O’Reilly, Google, and Nature. They decided a few years back to bring together a big bunch of people each summer, and let them make up the conference on the spot. When we arrived at Google HQ for SciFoo 2010, the 300-odd invitees had some getting-to-know-you drinks, and then a fairly big subset rushed the scheduling board to grab a time and room where they could hold a session of their liking. With a dozen or so sessions taking place every hour from morning till dusk, formulating a schedule was a fairly random process. Nevertheless, I ended up participating in a lot of fascinating sessions, and milling about in the Google courtyard was just as enlightening.

Here is a buffet of some of the experiences I had–a selection of links and thoughts in roughly chronological order.

1. Saturday morning, Rebecca Saxe of MIT talked about her work on morality in the brain. She can use magnetic pulses to temporarily reduce people’s moral judgments back to childhood. Here’s Rebecca talking in a Discover panel I moderated, and at a TED lecture.

2. Ray Jayawardhana, an astronomer at the University of Toronto, brought us up to date on exoplanets. Scientists have found 473 of them (I lost track at around 12, I think). I got to know Ray when he went to college with my brother. He spent a number of years writing about science for the Economist and Science, and then he decided he’d rather go explore the universe. Fortunately, he hasn’t given up writing, and next year he will be publishing a book called Brave New Worlds. In the meantime, you can watch him on this video.

3. I had to skip a bunch of cool-looking sessions to speak at one called RuleCamp. Four speakers had to present three rules each for doing something. Eric Drexler, a pioneer in nanotechnology, presented Three Rules to Understand Anything. I confess I can’t present them here, because I was still trying to figure out my own three rules. Basically, Drexler urged people to read widely, let themselves be confused, and realize that the experts might be wrong.

I presented Three Rules to Be Understood. (Drexler and I never spoke beforehand, amazingly enough). Mine were:

One: Mentalize (get in the heads of others, think about what they do and don’t understand)

Two: Choose your words (don’t just go on auto-pilot and spew out dead language–see my Index of Banned Words.)

Three: Respect stories. They are powerful ways of conveying information. But they only work if you actually tell coherent stories, not isolated fragments joined by your own thoughts. You must mentalize, but you cannot expect your readers or your audience to read your own mind.

Jonah Lehrer, who writes excellent articles and books on the brain, offered some insights from neuroscience on how to have more Aha moments. Take a warm shower, pretend your problem is far away, and move to Silicon Valley.

Garrett Lisi, who splits his time between searching for theory of everything and windsurfing, offered Three Rules for Being a Mad Scientist. He promptly presented eight rules, which, in itself, was his main message: don’t worry about the rules other people set.

4. Theodore Gray led a session on the future of books. Gray produced the first truly awesome book for the Ipad, the Elements. Here’s a YouTube demo of the thing. Gray bemoaned the drift going on right now to make ebooks nothing but static replicas of print books. It’s as if people had decided to base the web on nothing but pdf documents instead of html language. He used his own book to show how you can make ebooks that are like nothing on paper.

Gray also argued that authors would start making and selling these new books on their own, because traditional publishers were trapped in an old way of doing business. It should be pointed out, however, that Gray, who co-founded a very successful software company, could drop ten grand on a software programmer for his book without batting an eye. I came away confirmed in my suspicion that more typical authors cannot, in fact, do it alone. But we can experiment.

5. At some point in the evening, I got into a loud conversation with a very funny psychologist. It turned out his name was Bruce Hood. He works on, among other subjects, the psychology of the supernatural. Here’s a video of a lecture he gave on the topic. His next book is on the biology of the self–something to look forward to.

6. The Joys and Sorrows of Blogging on a Network: On Sunday morning, I was one of the speakers in a session organized by John Dupuis. He was inspired to organize it by, among other things, the Pepsi affair over at scienceblogs.com. That experience raised an interesting point: what are the pluses and minuses of blogging about science on a network? For me, the reasons are obvious, but that’s because my network is actually a magazine, and I blog as a journalist. But networks don’t always provide these obvious benefits. They may not provide good technical support to their bloggers, and they may take the network in directions individual bloggers may not like.

I’ve always thought that people put way too much stock in blog networks. In practice, they are practically indistinguishable from our personal collections of favorite blogs from all over the Internet. They seems like a hangover from the old days when writers were inescapably bound together on the pages of a magazine or a newspaper. But, as is often the case, I’m wondering if I may be wrong. Blog networks can provide a psychological support to bloggers–a camaraderie that can lift the spirits when we look out at the vast wilderness of the Internet.

In a nice bit of timing, some of the folks who walked away from scienceblogs.com started up their own blog network yesterday, called Scientopia. Let’s see how that experiment fares.

7. Thank goodness my session did not run up against that of Armand Leroi. Leroi is an evolutionary biologist in England; I got to know him through his wonderful book, Mutants. Here’s a video of him talking about the book (the book is much cooler, though). I had no idea Leroi had moved on to the evolution of music. He has done some intriguing experiments in which he uses people’s ratings of music to drive the evolution of songs. He played us a starting song–just noisy garbage, basically–and a song that evolved from that ancestor after hundreds of generations. It was lovely in a Brian Eno kind of way–so lovely that Leroi couldn’t help but start dancing.

Here’s the DarwinTunes site where you can read about the research and watch a video.

I also had no idea that Leroi was a television personality in England, where he writes and hosts science shows. He hosted a show on Aristotle as a biologist earlier this year, which you can’t watch on the web outside the UK. (Grrr.) But he says he’s writing a book on it, so I look forward to that.

And so endeth the buffet. For me, the best sessions were ones where somebody had something new to offer. People could pepper the speaker with questions and bring forth their own connected ideas, but the sessions needed an anchor to work well. Some of the other sessions ended up as under-informed free-for-alls. For example, I was in a session on biodiversity, run by Beth Shapiro of Penn State. She works on, among other things, ancient DNA in mammoths. In other words, THE VERY COOL. Check out this video of a lecture she gave in 2008. (Note to producers: Dr. Shapiro is not tall, so don’t block her face with the mike.)

At SciFoo, Shapiro asked the 20 or so people who gathered for the session if biodiversity should be preserved, and why. People started throwing out lots of reactions and got into arguments, but our arguments seemed to me to be a big muddle, because we were talking at different levels of the questions, and because, frankly, most of us didn’t know enough about the subject to really dig deep into it. Over the weekend, the SciFoo organizers liked to tell us how wonderful we were, which seems to have created an illusion that the meeting was a hotter ticket than the Clinton wedding. As a whole, the meeting was certainly stimulating, but I don’t think its social status should have been a free pass for us to hold forth on anything and everything.

I was glad when Shapiro started talking at the end of her session about her own work, and about what it’s like to eat a piece of boiled mummified mammoth. Apparently it’s like the food on British Airways.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Link Love, Meta, Talks

Comments (4)

  1. The most popular argument for preserving biodiversity is the “ecosystem services” (oxygen production by wild plants, pollination of crops by wild bees, etc.) they provide. But the only species we need to worry about preserving are those that are endangered — soil bacteria and fungi free nutrients in crop residues for use by subsequent crops, but we couldn’t eliminate them if we tried — and endangered species are almost always rare, and rare species don’t usually contribute much to ecosystem services because they’re… rare. So why should we preserve rare species?

    One reason is that they can be a great source of ideas. That plant on the brink of extinction isn’t doing much for the ozone layer, but could any of the strategies that it uses to cope with drought be copied in agriculture? If that rare fish went extinct, it’s predators would probably find something else to eat, but the way it uses polarized light to see through muddy water could be applied to seeing through fog. This is one of the ideas I’ll discuss in “Darwinian Agriculture: Where Does Nature’s Wisdom Lie?”

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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