Conference culture has a new younger sibling: the un-conference— a wonderfully spontaneous, informal, and, above all, communicative variation on the traditional model of presenting new research and ideas.
I had the honor and privilege of being invited to participate in last weekend’s SciFoo un-conference at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, where about 300 leading scientists, technologists, writers and other thought-leaders gathered for the fifth annual 3-day event hosted by Nature, Google, and O’Reilly Media. Participants from all corners of the Earth brought their most exciting ideas in theoretical physics, synthetic biology, neurotechnology, and social justice, among others—to toss into a teeming weekend schedule for all-day discussions, presentations, and long lunches that stretched disciplines and made science feel riskier. And, when it came to the ideas and attitudes on hand at SciFoo, riskier seemed to be a good thing.
Upon arrival at the Googleplex on Friday evening, the roughly 300 participants were given the opportunity to form the weekend’s schedule of presentations. We crowded around a series of large white boards to stick our oversized post-its on squares that corresponded to specific times and rooms of various sizes in the Googleplex, where we’d foster a discussion around any idea or specific piece of research we wished to bring to the table. The boards were quickly filled with a dazzling array of topics, with each hour holding around 14 distinct sessions running in parallel around the complex.
For more of an introduction to the concept of SciFoo, check out this Nature video made by talented science filmmaker Charlotte Stoddart about last year’s event:
I started Saturday morning at SciFoo in a session called “Lightning Talks” where presenters stood before a packed room and were challenged to deliver their latest and greatest in five minutes or less, and then to answer a few rapid fire questions from the audience at the end. Cognitive psych researcher Rebecca Saxe described augmenting moral decision-making, whereby modulating activity in distinct regions of the brain seems to alter behavior in morally-charged situations. Mind Hacks author Vaughan Bell described several studies about hypnosis; Richard Jefferson reminded us that we exist because of communities of microbes living within our bodies. If there were an Olympic relay race model for communicating cutting-edge research and ideas, this session was it.
Later that morning, I attended a longer format relay presentation, where four thinkers stood up and delivered their “3 Rules” for a specific pursuit:
Eric Drexler on how to be a better scientist.
- What to do: aim to learn about the whole of science.
- How to do it: immerse yourself in other fields, dip into the scientific literature in an unfamiliar discipline once in awhile.
- Prepare yourself to recognize problems: turn unknown uknowns into known unknowns.
Carl Zimmer on how to be better understood as a scientist.
- When writing, mentalize. Try to put yourself inside the mind of your audience, and see what that feels like.
- Choose every word. (Check out Zimmer’s list of banned science writing words).
- Take storytelling seriously as a serious tool.
Garrett Lisi on rules for being a mad scientist.
- Make outlandish claims but be sane.
- Embrace your eccentricities.
- Extremize your hair.
- Break the rules.
- Have a rich life outside of science.
- Corrupt the youth.
- And the mysterious bridge to…
- Make a profit.
Jonah Lehrer on how to have more “aha!” moments.
- Take more warm showers.
- Pretend problems are far away.
- Move to Silicon Valley (i.e. foster diverse social networks across disciplines, have more horizontal interactions).
Other highlights for me included David Eagleman’s brilliant presentation on the neuroscience of time perception (including an experiment that involves a free-fall into a giant net while trying to tell time), Gabrielle Lyon’s session on the search for a replacement to the “pipeline” metaphor for science, and Ed Boyden’s fascinating research at M.I.T. using optogenetics to stimulate neurons with beams of light, a technique with a vast range of experimental applications. At my session on Saturday evening, I presented year one of my ongoing Blue Brain documentary film project and received some invaluable feedback from those in attendance. The screening morphed into a lively debate about the project and A.I. research in general, and many great suggestions for future questions and approaches to the film were put forth.
But for me, the definitive SciFoo moment came in a Saturday afternoon session led by Eva Amsen called Musicians & Scientists, where Eva described her terrific project to interview scientists who double as musicians (or vise versa), learning about what motivates them to pursue both. Halfway into the session, two scientists in the room came forth with their own musical projects—first, Stanford physicist Hari Manoharan gave a mind-bending presentation of the work done in his lab—and then showed us what that work sounds like. Manoharan uses innovative methods to pick up and move individual atoms through a process called quantum tunneling. Manoharan can listen to the sound of the energy between these atoms as they move across one another, clicking into place or scraping across many others in sequence. Not only does this produce interesting rhythms (which Manoharan says some students have used for their own musical projects), it actually serves as a crucial scientific tool for the researchers to know where they are moving each atom by listening to each “click” and scrape.
Next, physicist Stephon Alexander presented a forward-thinking way to visualize the classic circle of fifths in music. Alexander has exploded the circle into 3-D space, creating a pentahelix whereby each note on the scale can be placed on a distinct point in a perpetually twisting structure. The result is something like a musical DNA strand, and Alexander–a jazz enthusiast– can now use the helical structure to visualize, for example, the geometry of a John Coltrane tune, with each chord lighting up a distinct 3-D object formed by the points of each note in space. For more about Alexander, check out his profile piece on the National Geographic site.
Manoharan and Alexander’s impromptu presentations within the theme of the session as a whole encapsulated for me what made SciFoo such an invigorating and risky place to test out new ideas and projects, and above all, to talk with other curious parties. For kids, science needs to be cool enough to be as interesting as say, sports; for adults, science will do best to stay just as engaging– maybe even risky at times– and always driven by an insatiable curiosity. The SciFoo model of unfettered communication among some of the most excited and passionate thinkers may be the best ticket to keep it that way.
More SciFoo coverage: