A Blog Around The Clock

Final Scifoo Wrap-up

As I predicted, bloggers have waited a day or two before they wrote much of substance abour Scifoo. First, you don’t want to miss out on any cool conversations by blogging instead. Second, the experience is so intense, one needs to cool down, process and digest everything. Before I write my own thoughts, here are some links to places where you can see what others are doing:

The campers are joining the Science Foo Camp Facebook group (honor system – only campers are supposed to join, but it is open) and exchanging links, pictures and information.

There is an official aggregator where you can see the recent posts by bloggers who attended scifoo.

More and more people are loading their pictures on Flickr.

You can see blog posts and pictures on Technorati (watch out for the dates – the 06 and 07 pics are mixed up together).

There is a Nature aggregator as well (appears to be the cleanest of them all), or you may choose to use Connotea instead.

Or you can use Google Blogsearch to find the recent posts about the meeting. They are all worth reading (I’ll highlight a few posts below).

Patrick is collecting a list of books mentioned at Scifoo.

Finally, people are posting ideas about potential future projects on Scifoo Prototypes, set up by Nikita of JoVE.

My previous posts about it are here:
Taking over the Silicon Valley
Science Foo Camp – Friday
Science Foo Camp – Saturday morning
Science Foo Camp – Saturday afternoon
Science Foo Camp – Sunday
Home
A question for Scifoo campers

That out of the way, follow me under the fold if you want to hear my angle on the story….

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What and where?

Science Foo Camp is an annual meeting organized by Nature, O’Reilly and Google. This was the second Scifoo, held at Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

OK, how big is it? Big enough to diss YearlyKos for it. That big. As I told some of my friends, if you get the invitation to Scifoo you say Yes and then you show up. If that means you have to postpone your own funeral, so be it – it’s worth the hassle.

Who?

Scientists, uber-techno-geeks, enterpreneurs, young and old, Nobel Prize winners and extraordinary undergrads – but all best known for being creative, innovative, interesting and out-of-the-box thinkers. The nerdfest at its finest.

The meeting is by invitation only. Some are The Chosen. Others seeth in jelaousy. Tim O’Reilly and Timo Hannay pick and choose 200 people to invite using an algorithm that is their own secret (they act in mysterious ways). Some campers to this day do not know why they got invited, or who suggested them. I am assuming that I was invited because of organization of the Science Blogging Conference and editing of the Science Blogging Anthology. Getting hired by PLoS happened after the invitation came in, but the public way I went about getting that job probably did not hurt either.

Henry Gee summarizes the feeling:

…were just one more neuron to be added to this group, the world would implode into some kind of intellectual singularity…

Why?

To see what happens when 200+ nuts get together and start talking to each other over famous Google food and California wine. Cross-fertilization. Hybrid vigor. Miracles may happen.

How?

This is a true Unconference. The schedule and topics are determined by participants on the spot (with perhaps a little bit of testing the waters in advance on a wiki). Some conferences I’ve been to are partially Unconferences, i.e., either all the planning is done by the participants on a wiki, thus having a final schedule in place before the meeting starts (e.g., ConvergeSouth, Science Blogging Conference), or one part of the otherwise pre-scheduled day is reserved for a free-for-all unconference (e.g., Podcastercon). But Scifoo is a 100% unconference from start to finish. How does it work in practice?

Friday

On Friday afternoon, after checking in the hotel, we got on a bus and went to Googleplex. We filled a little form (5 words that excite you, 5 people you want to suggest for next year, etc.) and got our pictures taken (see the Flickr pictures for the photos of some of the participants as displayed on a board at Googleplex). We got some nice swag, got some food, then went upstairs for the first meeting – all 200 of us, plus a bunch of young Googlers who helped the meeting go smooth and who also joined in all the sessions.

After a brief intro and setting the ground-rules, Tim and Timo asked all the 250-something people in the room to get up, say who they are, where they work, and three words that describe their interests. Many people went over the 3-word limit, but it doesn’t matter – what matters was the amazing breadth of backgrounds, expertise and interests of the participants. Eugenie Scott got by far the loudest applause. Evolution matters.

This was followed by four presentations that were somewhat more formal than the norm for this meeting, chosen by Tim and Timo out of suggestions sent in advance to them. They were:

- Felice Frankel gave a delightful presentation on what makes a good (or bad) scientific illustration.

- Charles Simonyi talked about the complexities and exhilaration of being the first space tourist (and only the fifth civilian in space), to which Martha Stewart explained how she designed the space food for him to take to the Space Station.

- Saul Griffiths had a gripping slide-show on the flow of energy on Earth, our use of it, ways to change those patterns, and how to use the comic strips to send out the message (See one of the slides from this talk).

- Drew Endy talked on ‘biotechnology’ in the garage, i.e., the imminent ability of kids to use biotechnology to modify or make organisms at home. Someone jumped up and stated that it was utterly impossible. While I would not go as far, I doubt it will be possible in a few years, as Drew suggested, but rather in a few decades, once we figure out the incredibly complex, circuitous and pretty much yet unknown mechanisms of development. You cannot just jump from DNA to morphology like that! That is called “vulgar determinism”. DNA is an important part, but only a part of the process.

PZ Myers says it well:

If I were to do it all again, I’d offer up an intro to evo-devo, in particular because some of the more gung-ho genomics talks seemed so oblivious to the difficulties of the fancier projects they were saying would be in our future. I really think the organismal-form-from-DNA problem is going to make the protein folding problem look trivial, and this is especially going to be true if the DNA Mafia is going to pretend the developmental biologists don’t exist. (It probably would have triggered some good arguments, too.)

…and then clarifies:

Oh, yes, there are lots of people learning amazing things about development, and they are using those powerful DNA techniques that the DNA mafia has enabled. The context of my comment, though, was Drew Endy’s (a very smart guy, of course) talk in which he too glibly leapt from the idea of genetic engineering using genetic modules to add new biosynthetic pathways, to the idea of engineering a prehensile tail onto people. There’s a huge gulf there, and he seemed oblivious to it.

Then, we all went downstairs to the main hall and attacked the schedule boards. This was not for the shy or weak or faint-of-heart. The system rewards the young, strong and egotistic (and male!). While I am all three (four) of those, I still had to wait a few minutes before I managed to elbow my way to the board, do an “expelliarmus” charm on someone’s magic marker, and sign up to lead a session on Open Science 2.0 on Saturday morning (I was fortunate that the room of perfect size was still available at the time). Perhaps we should do a “women, children and elderly first” system next time, to get us macho types to back off for a few minutes before starting the fight. Then we had some more food and chats until the last midnight bus back to the hotel, where we continued the conversations (over wine – Google provided each one of us with a free bottle placed into our rooms) until about 2:30am.

Jonathan Eisen also recaps the first day (and more here). Aaron Swartz describes the procedure (and suggests changes – though I disagree with them) and has a great liveblogging summary of the entire meeting. See also a great Photo Essay by George Dyson (you can see my “Open Science 2.0″ session written up on the board here; and in the photo of Martha Stewart and Charles Simonyi you can see a black shirt with “open access” on it from the back – that is the PLoS ONE shirt worn by Deepak Singh). Also read Timo Hannay’s final recap.

Saturday

The State of The Union Google WiFi is Strong. But there is no incentive to blog, as there is so much to do in the real world. So many interesting people. At 8am. Already bused to Googleplex. Enjoying breakfast. Some people are intimidated by celebrities. I am not, but am stunned at how many people knew who I was. An unemployable, depressed failure for three years. Now a public face of PLoS. People want to talk to me. I need to get used to this. But I really am excited to finally meet in person people like Anna Kushnir and Pierre Lindenbaum who also feel intimidated.

Professor Steve Steve is a great ice-breaker. I managed to start conversations with a number of people by luring them to take a picture with the Good Professor first. See the pictures in my posts I linked above. Dozens of people now know the story of DI’s attempt to list “scientists” who support Intelligent Design Creationism, the Project Steve, the mission of the NCSE, the Panda’s Thumb blog, the Dover trial and the role of Professor Steve Steve in all of that.

There were, if one can slassify them in any meaningful way, four ‘types’ of sessions going on:

The “Presentations” in which people gave semi-formal talks with slideshows. Some people butted in with questions. Others waited for the Q&A at the end.

The “Birds of a Feather” sessions. Computer geeks. Astrophysicists. Computational biologists. Whatever it was, it was exciting. But, if this is not your area of expertise and you do not understand the technical lingo, your time may better be served at another session.

The “Creative Chaos” sessions. Cross-fertilization. The leader would set the tone and topic with a couple of sentences and then let the room go wild. And creative. The greatest the diversity of people in the room, the better the session turns out.

The “Show and Tell” sessions. Look: dinosaur fossils and human fossils that nobody has seen before! Now look here: the famous $100 laptop. Now there: the 3D camera. Hey, these are cool toys! Some of those were in 1-hour sessions. Others were on display in the main hall (fossils). Others were easy to find most of the time to play with (the laptop or the toys). The 3D camera demo actually happened at the hotel. Professor Steve Steve was a permanent, omnipresent session as well.

Different styles for different topics and audiences. Just as it should be. Perhaps they could be color-coded on the boards (by using magic markers of different colors to denote the session types) next year.

So, how does one go about choosing sessions to attend? Impossible. Everything is interesting!

I led the session on Open Science 2.0 first thing in the morning. I made the title ambiguous on purpose and tried to make the session as chaotic and unstructured as possible because I wanted to see what others think and what others want to talk about. I asked Jonathan Eisen and Jean-Claude Bradley to co-moderate with me. Carl Djerassi hijacked the first few minutes, but after he was done with his two tirades, the session became interesting.

Alex Palazzo, Duncan Hall, Anna Kushnir, Peter Murray-Rust and Corie Lok have some very good thoughts about that session.

What I got out of it was that there is a lot of confusion out there.

Everyone there is, in principle, supportive of Open Access (and just loves PLoS). There were, as far as I know, no real opponents at the scifoo. But different people, perhaps due to their scientific area, or country, or age, define the terms differently. What is meant by “Open Access”? What is “peer-review”? Not everyone agrees on the definitions.

It appears that many do not clearly distinguish between ‘Open Notebook Science’ (the kind that Jean-Claude does, for instance, or Rosie Radfield, recording day-to-day experiments on the wikis or blogs), pre-publication of data (e.g., in Nature Preceedings), Open Access publishing, traditional peer-review, and post-publication peer-review (e.g., PLoS ONE).

I was quite surprised to see how many misperceptions there are about PLoS ONE. Some think that it is not peer-reviewed at all. Others think that the peer-review is reduced to checking-off a couple of boxes. Yet others think that it is a selective journal that is intended to challenge Science, Nature and Cell for the #1 spot on the Impact indices. This was valuable information for me, as I needed to find the way to clear this up.

So, I used this session, a couple of subsequent sessions, and a number of one-on-one conversations to try to explain PLoS ONE. Now that I work here, I have seen the manuscripts and the reviews. Yes, the reviewing process goes fast – because our reviewers are excited about the concept and do not drag their feet. But it is a true and thorough reviewing process. Many of the ONE papers you see published have gone through a revision or two or three. And almost half of the manuscripts are rejected. This is not a place to publish junk – the science has to be good and the paper has to be well written.

The only thing that is not a factor is if the paper is ground-breaking, Earth-shaking, mind-numbing, heart-stopping, revolutionary….i.e., Nature-worthy. This factor, in itself unimportant, is to be determined over time, by readers/commenters/raters/annotators after the publication. Immediately. Or in a year. Or in twenty years. Whenever it becomes more clear how exciting the paper really is (and for this to be clear, usually more research needs to be done and this takes time).

Another thing I got out of this session was the fear. Especially among the young scientists. Open Access is an Open Pandora’s Box – nobody will close it again. It is the future. But right now, we have a mixed system: the traditional model co-exists with the Open Access model. What is one to do? Be brave and join the new way, as a young person is eager to do? Or play safe and end up actually having a scientific career?

The result of the session was a much clearer focus on a couple of key issues and others led sessions focused on those issues. I attended most of them. The best was the very last session led by Andrew Walkingshaw and Alex Palazzo (check their links for details) on the fear felt by young scientists about joining in the Open Science movement and thus, potentially, sacrificing their careers for a cause. Several editors of Nature were there as well.

Peter Murray-Rust has the best short summary of their session:

Scifoo doesn’t run on predictable lines and one good thing was that Alex and Andrew were inspired to run a session (young scientists and the culture of fear) they hadn’t planned to when they came.

…and Peter again:

This was probably the highlight of the meeting for me – where else could you get an idea which surfaced at 0930 on one day and 26 hours later there was a deep debate among equals?

OK, apart from a few sessions on science publishing what else did I see? It is SOOOOOO hard to decide which sessions to attend. Simultaneously with my session, there were at least another two (out of many) that I wanted to see, but could not: ‘Visual Garage – We’ll Fix Your Graphs and Visuals’ (Felice Frankel) and Citizen Science – Where Next? (John Durant).

The next session, by Jacqueline Floyd wa sa powerful reminder of what Scifoo can do:

Magazine covers, I should note, are merely being used as a metric here to measure the visual space that media outlets are willing to devote to the faces of scientists. Why should we care? My concern grew out of discussions with non-scientists and their stereotyped views of scientists as isolated, possiby nutty geeks with wild hair. Thus, my thought is that if more modern, active research scientists were featured in the media, the public would begin to get a better idea of what a modern scientist is like. Just as we were looking at a slide of Wired magazine covers as a good example of a magazine that frequently features scientists and techies on the cover, Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson joined us. Chris pointed out that while Wired has a significant number of pages devoted to science content, “objects [such as a molecule] sell better than non-recognizable people.” Moreover, Chris said that “magazines would go out of business” if science magazines put only scientists on their covers. If the crux of the issue is having “recognizable” scientists, then perhaps the burden is on scientists, or perhaps university outreach and PR departments, to promote themselves and their research. At the end of the session Chris Anderson asked if we could recommend scientists for the cover of Wired magazine. How about it Element Listers? Who would you recommend? Chris is listening.

This session was quite an eye-opener. Beyond perhaps the guys from Mythbusters, putting a scientist on the cover is bound to get someone fired! Thus, the molecules on covers, instead of people. But, how about actual scientific journals? The cover does not sell Science, Cell or Nature? Why not put a scientist’s mug up there? How about “Seed” magazine?

What did I miss in this time-slot? Future History of Biology (Rob Carlson/); The Nature of Time and Mathematics (Jaren Lanier & Neal Stephenson & Lee Smolin); 3D Video Applications: How to Publish Science in Video (Steve Silverman); Science and Art (Brian Derbey/); and a few others….

In the next time-slot I went to see the presentation ‘Dissemination and Access to Discovery – Communication of Science’ by Gabrielle Lyon because, well, she’s my friend (she went to U of Chicago with my brother) and I wanted to see what’s new with the Project Exploration which I have mentioned on my blog a couple of times before, on top of having a permanent button to their site on the sidebar (the pretty brown square). Other people involved in science education were there and connections were made, potentially leading to mutual projects – what scifoo is meant to foster. But I also missed a number of other cool sessions at that time: Listening to the World: Voices from the Blue Deep (Chris Clark) about auditory communication in whales; A Magician Looks at the Irrational and Pseudo-Science (James Randi); Ethical Implications of the Information Society (Luciano Floridi – the only philosopher in presence!); Are Patents Preventing Innovation? (Stephanna Patton); and Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Teach Evolution (Eugeinee Scott). How can one possibly choose!?

After lunch (the one when Martha Stewart served my lasagna), I went to a combo-session: ‘Scientific Communication in 2030′ (Kurte-Bilder) –AND– ‘The selfish scientist’ (Carole Goble), another one essentially on publishing. At the same time: Skepticism and Critical Thinking in an Age of Marvels (Guido Nurez); $100 laptop demo (Ted Kaehler); Why a mouse? Multi-touch, physical and social interfaces for manipulating data (Philip Tiongson); and several others…

Then, ‘Biodiversity on the Web: Science Publishing’. Missed: E-Science Beyond Infrastructure (RichardAkerman); Science & Fundamentalism (Durant); Stem Cells (a.k.a. How to Get Scientists to Care about Web 2.0); Squishy Magnets, Talking Paper and Disapearing Ink: How can inventables.com open its doors to kids for free?; and several others.

Then, an absolutely amazing presenation: ‘Dinosaurs, ancient humans, expedition science’ (Paul Sereno, Gabrielle Lyon). Wow! Just Wow! I want go and dig fossils right now! Missed – nothing comparable, I’m sure, but still an interesting set of choices, including: Give us your Data! Google’s effort to archive and distribute the world’s scientific datasets (Noel Gorelick); Personal Impact Factor: Measuring Scientific Contributions Outside the Literature; Kids, Science, Math & Rational Thought; Where are the aliens? (David Grinspoon, Steve Benner); Visual communications, graphics gesture (Barbara Teresky); Godel and the draft board (George Dyson); Why does science suck on TV, and what can we do about it? (Adam Rutherford); and a few others….

Then, I missed the Paperless House….with or without toilet paper. Anna went. I actually do not remember what session I went to? Another publishing session? Outside to chat with people? I don’t know. Was that the time when I sat outside and chatted with PZ Myers? Could be. Believe it or not, this was the first time we met in Real Life. As many have noted over the years, in person, PZ is quite softspoken and gentle. Like Santa Claus. Even kinda looks like Santa Claus. If you believe in Santa Claus and you meet PZ you may think for a second that it is the same….well, let’s not go there. If you believe in Santa Claus or other mythical beings you probably do not itch to meet PZ in person.

But next, I skipped a potentially interesting publishing session in order to see Greg Bear’s session on Biohacking: science security society. It is fear, and our response to bioterror, that is more dangerous than anything bioterrorists can really do to us. It is psychology of mass paranoia we need to study, not the biotech of microbes. The society of cowards is far more dangerous than anthrax. That was my take-home message. I don’t think everyone there would agree with me.

The word of the day: Boogerome. Mapping (geographically and genetically) microbes by having kids sequence the stuff from their own snot. Omics for the next generation.

Dinner. Wine. Conversations deep into the night at the hotel. A couple of hours of sleep.

Sunday

Breakfast at 8am at Googleplex.

First session: How to Celebrate Darwin in 2009 (Phil Campeck). Eugenie Scott was also there. And PZ Myers. Big emphasis on what the Museums will do. Someone suggests going outdoors instead, being naturalists, collecting stuff – I like that idea. I mention The Beagle Project. Lots of ideas thrown out, no organization (yet) to coordinate all of that. Perhaps I should have checked out ‘Would You Upload?’ (Melanie Swan) instead? Or, ’5 mins on your favorite science website / tell us your dream science web tool’ (Richard Akerman)?

Next time-slot. My session on ‘Science Blogging’. Again, quite unstructured. Asked a couple of bloggers to come by if they could. Several bloggers in the room, a few non-bloggers as well. I plugged in my laptop into the projecting system so I could show blogs we talked about. Went around the room and each blogger explained the why and how of their own blogging: what is the motivation, purpose, constraints, rewards? Someone blogged about this session – check one of the aggregators to find out who as it is 4am here and I am getting too tired to look for individual posts.

Missed at the same time: Incorporating science into social networks (Josh Koarer and Jon Durant); Tree of Life: Fractal Data Problem (Sereno); Provenance analytics: illuminating science trails. Future of scientific publications, dynamic and evolving papers. (Juliana Freire); Opening the scientific literature: OpenLibrary, Google Scholar (Aaron Swartz); Towards an open source science learning collaboratory (Ted Kahn Design Worlds); Planetary Defense Against Asteroids (Pete Worden); among others…

Next: the session I mentioned above: Culture of Fear: Scientific Communication and Young Scientists (Alex Palazzo, Andrew Walkingshaw). Awesome ending. Missed: Human Microbiome, microbes in and on us (Jonathan Eisen); Science fiction: what is it for? (Henry Gee); Social limits of scientific knowledge – can too much information impede science? (Dalton Convoy); and others. You’ll just have to check other blogs to see what they say about all those other sessions I had to miss. For instance, read Duncan and Kaitlin. See Pierre’s cartoons (Yes, Pierre, I loved your drawings!).

Farewell session – all the campers and Googlers in the same room again. People come up to the microphone, thank the organizers, say what they liked, suggest changes for the next year. More artists needed. More historians, philosophers, social scientists. More non-white, non-male, non-Anglo campers! More bloggers. More structure. Less structure. Boards and markers vs. online scheduling. Come to the Science Blogging Conference.

Let me finish with another quote from Henry Gee:

Someday, all conferences will be like this. Someday.

Hope you get invited next time….I hope I get invited again myself.

Comments

  1. #1 apalazzo
    August 10, 2007

    Thanks for the summary, I had completly forgot about the boogerome.

  2. #2 nunatak
    August 12, 2007

    Thanks for the excellent summary and huge thanks for mentioning our project! My newest ambition is to get invited to Scifoo, after building and sailing the Beagle around the world that is. By the way, we are looking for about $7million US Dollars for the Beagle build. Are there any connections you made at Scifoo that might help us navigate us towards someone with some purse strings to open??

    Karen