Pharyngula

Sci Foo recap

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
Carl Djerassi,
Eric Drexler,
Eric Lander,
Eugenie Scott,
Freeman Dyson,
Henry Gee,
James Randi,
Kim Stanley Robinson,
Martha Stewart,
Martin Rees,
Paul Sereno,
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.

Comments

  1. #1 PuckishOne
    August 6, 2007

    What the heck was Martha Stewart doing at SciFoo?

  2. #2 Tom @Thoughtsic.com
    August 6, 2007

    Efficacy of fashionable government-mandated anklets?

  3. #3 RamblinDude
    August 6, 2007

    The important thing is: did you play “Werewolf”?

  4. #4 Reed A. Cartwright
    August 6, 2007

    “What the heck was Martha Stewart doing at SciFoo?”

    Hanging out with Prof. Steve Steve. Bora has the photo, and it will be on PT later today or tomorrow.

  5. #5 CalGeorge
    August 6, 2007

    What the heck was Martha Stewart doing at SciFoo?

    Hoping to have her ankle bracelet reprogrammed to receive insider stock tips?

  6. #6 Michael
    August 6, 2007

    I’ll never be able to take these meeting seriously until they invite me.

  7. #7 zohn
    August 6, 2007

    Yowza!! Looks like the SciFoo conference was hot!

  8. #8 zohn
    August 6, 2007
  9. #9 tony
    August 6, 2007

    zohn: embed URLs using the A tag

    [A href="url"]link label[/A]

    replace with LT;GT for use.

  10. #10 E-lad
    August 6, 2007

    A bit off topic, but Cedarville University recently played host to the First Conference on Creation Geology.
    You can find the agenda and the abstracts here:

    The Proceedings:

    http://www.cedarville.edu/departments/er/geology/abstractbook.pdf

  11. #11 w?
    August 6, 2007
  12. #12 w?
    August 6, 2007
  13. #13 Mike P
    August 6, 2007

    Martha was there to talk about preparing space food for astronauts.

  14. #14 tony
    August 6, 2007

    Sorry… but WTF is ‘space food’? Is it more roomy? does it nourish space? (if so what about the inconvenient non-space stuff – doesn’t that deserve nourishment, too?)

    Isn’t all food, simply *food*. (known exceptions – airline *food*; cheeze ‘product’; corn ‘snacks’; …)

  15. #15 Mike P
    August 6, 2007

    Tony,

    Jesus, chill! I was making a funny.

  16. #16 cm
    August 6, 2007

    Chalking the lack of any mention of the contents of the conference to sleep debt.

    Does anyone else here dislike conferences?

  17. #17 Greg
    August 6, 2007

    Carl Djerassi? He is a trip, isn’t he? When I was at Stanford I would pass him and say hello, but he wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence. Wasn’t worth his energy expenditure. Never met an ego like his before.

  18. #18 thalarctos
    August 6, 2007

    Thank you for the citation, e-lad. I was wondering what I was going to do with all those pesky neurons; after reading through that, it’s no longer a problem.

    From the final page:

    I have conducted detailed research on time-travel studies of the non-mechanized care of animals. It is evident that 8 people could have fed, watered, and disposed of the waste of 16,000 animals, and have done so with time to spare for other tasks. Moreover, animals that
    needed extra attention were few in number and did not require a large amount of time.

    Well, I too have conducted detailed research: The dog I’m currently dog-sitting for required a 20-minute walk to take her morning poop today, and we’re on again for this evening. That’s a rate of 40 minutes/person/dog/day.

    Even if we assume for the moment that, like those professional dog-walkers in Manhattan, I could take the 2 dogs, the two bears, the two tigers, the two lions, and maybe something else for walkies at the same time, still, at that empirically-verified rate, he’s going to have to make up a lot of time (read: skimp) on other species to get his numbers to work out right.

  19. #19 SLC
    August 6, 2007

    Re Freeman Dyson

    If I recall correctly, Prof. Dyson is a Templeton Prize winner. That should have raised Prof. Myers’ hackles.

  20. #20 PZ Myers
    August 6, 2007

    What? You mean they allowed Christians and followers of other weird religious beliefs into this thing? I had no idea.

    (Actually, we had several lively conversations about science and religion, and there were lots of different religious views there. I managed to survive the exposure, and return to my Western Minnesota lair, where everyone is godless.)

  21. #21 Loc
    August 6, 2007

    How do you embed like post #17?

  22. #22 PZ Myers
    August 6, 2007

    The magic html is:

    <blockquote> words words words </blockquote>

  23. #23 Iskra
    August 6, 2007

    E-lad, that document is both painful and hilarious. I especially enjoyed “Billions of Years!” Who knew people only insist the earth is billions of years old because of a doctrinal dispute between Catholics and Protestants?

    “It is of interest to note that as a Protestant he believed in the simultaneous deposition of sediments from one flood, whereas as a Catholic he believed in the sequential deposition of sediments from multiple floods. This new proposal overlooked the evidences for simultaneous deposition and introduced the element of time – vast ages that have since expanded into billions of years!”

  24. #24 Steve
    August 6, 2007

    If you want to see what damage the newest star in the YEC heavens, Dr. Marcus Ross, is up to, check out “Building Consistency: An Educational Model for Promoting a Biblical Creation Worldview” in the First Conference on Creation Geology program. He is apparently quite proud of the fact that his required course at Liberty University increases the percentage Liberty students that strongly agree with the statement “All things in the universe were made by God in six 24 hourdays” from 65 % at the start of the course to 93 % at the end of the course. Indoctrination by Dr. Ross also increase the percentage of those that strongly agreed with the statement that “dinosaurs and man lived at the same time” from 48 % at the start to 84 % at the end; an additional 10 % “agreed” that the Flinstones is a documentary. As a university instructor, it almost leaves me in tears that a teacher would be proud of the fact that he’s left his students dumber and more full of bullshit than when they walked into his classroom. This is educational malpractice at the highest level.

  25. #25 Henry Gee
    August 6, 2007

    Great to meet you at SciFoo, and for sharing our mutual religious incomprehension. However, you wrote…

    “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.”

    The first sentence is right, but too downbeat, because the ‘DNA mafia’ is at last waking up to smell the coffee. The coolest developmental people are now applying up-to-the minute molecular techniques (cell-lineage labelling, RNAi) to solve very old problems in morphology (origins of the vertebrate head, developmental canalization and so on. Check out the work by Georgy Koentges (now at U Warwick) and Jukka Jernvall (Helsinki) – it will blow your socks off.

  26. #26 Peter McGrath
    August 6, 2007

    “I have conducted detailed research on time-travel studies of the non-mechanized care of animals. It is evident that 8 people could have fed, watered, and disposed of the waste of 16,000 animals, and have done so with time to spare for other tasks. Moreover, animals that needed extra attention were few in number and did not require a large amount of time.”

    We need to start a fund to buy this guy a good blowjob.

  27. #27 matt
    August 6, 2007

    The conf sounds just spiffy (not only on your say-so, though that counts). And if I wasn’t persuaded already, your “make the protein folding problem look trivial” line convinces me that my PhD topic has to be developmental…

  28. #28 ildi
    August 6, 2007

    No, not Cedarville University, Ohio! Meanwhile, Antioch College, seven miles up the street in Yellow Springs, is closing down due to lack of students and funds. Sometimes (ok, many times) I’m filled with despair for Ohio.

    “For 150 years, Antioch has been a leader in higher education, long known for its commitment to educational innovation and social justice.”

  29. #29 PZ Myers
    August 6, 2007

    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.

  30. #30 Rey Fox
    August 6, 2007

    Gulf schmulf, I want my monkey-man.

  31. #31 jeffox backtrollin'
    August 7, 2007

    >to the idea of engineering a prehensile tail onto people<

    (Remembers an old SNL skit) “Feet or pods?”

  32. #32 JohnnieCanuck, FCD
    August 7, 2007

    A huge gulf, maybe, but think of the motivation to engineer it so you have the ability to spike some creationist’s drink and then sit back and wait for his tail to make itself known.

  33. #33 Henry Gee
    August 7, 2007

    New genetic modules –> prehensile tails on to people? He really said that? Really? Unbelievable… He should have come to my science fiction seminar on Sunday morning at SciFoo and said that. But he’d have been laughed off. Perhaps SF people have a better idea of what’s possible than real scientists…

  34. #34 Stephen Wells
    August 7, 2007

    I can’t believe no-one has made this joke yet, but:

    Your Sci Foo is weak! Much skill and training for you is required!

  35. #35 Hsien Lei
    August 11, 2007

    OK. What am I missing here? Who’s the DNA Mafia?

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