Despite a miserable red-eye flight — I left San Jose at 6:30 last night, and arrived in Minneapolis at 4am, followed by my familiar long drive home — I’ll try to say a few words about Sci Foo.
Short version: weirdest meeting ever. That’s a good thing, though.
The guest list included
Kim Stanley Robinson,
and a few hundred other people, so the first function was to just get all these very different people to ping-pong off each other. There were some fascinating conversations — the whole thing was one giant schmooze fest. In addition to the big names, though, there were also swarms of younger people, people I hadn’t heard of (yet), and I think it’s commendable that they’re trying to foster the contributions of the next generation. There are lots of photos of the participants, and although the celebrities are over-represented in the pictures, you can also see lots of other people being busy, busy, busy.
The meetings themselves were an extension of that schmoozey stuff, too. This was an unconference, where there was no set agenda except what we built during the meeting, and many of the meetings were in the same spirit, where a subject was simply tossed into the room and everyone chewed over it. Some had a little more structure, with actual prepared slides and so forth, but there was a tendency for those to fall apart a bit as the audience focused on smaller points within the subject. That wasn’t a problem, though—the event had a Conference 2.0 feel, where the continual ongoing feedback was as important as the initial premise. It took a while for me to catch on, but it got much more fun as I figured out that no one had to carry the full load of a single meeting, and that we were free to explore ideas.
If I have any complaints, they’re all my own fault. It was initially disconcerting and I was not sure exactly what to expect, so I didn’t actually jump in and offer a session of my own, and the schedule filled up fast. 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.)
I also tended to drift into sessions that were already focused on my interests, or that were extensions of topics brought up in other sessions. This is the kind of meeting where there is more benefit to flitting over a diverse collection of different ideas rather than trying to focus too single-mindedly on just one subject … especially since the time flew by and the last day arrived far too quickly.
Alas, it’s not likely I’ll be invited back soon — the meeting is of a limited size, and churning it over and getting new people to attend is important — but if you get invited, I recommend it highly. It’s not something to be missed.