Silicon Valley Hackfest Hints at How Laboratory Scientists Could Communicate


This past Saturday, dozens of computer programmers descended upon a mansion in Cupertino, California to enjoy massive troughs of Indian food, camaraderie, and 12 hours of working on a diverse array of projects alongside one another.

I visited the event, called SuperHappyDevHouse 20, as an observer. It made me wonder: What if all scientists worked this way?

Granted, it would be immensely difficult, and possibly dangerous, for a hundred chemists or biologists to bring all of their instruments to a suburban home and set up shop for the weekend. All scientists have conferences that they can attend. But I think that there is a point to be made here.

Coders are accustomed to communicating with each other must faster than their laboratory-bound counterparts. Some Google employees told me how they are barraged each day with a phalanx of email. Countless message boards, IRC channels, and other sites allow isolated programmers to share with each other. And then we have this: a gathering with lightning talks and guys squeezed ten to a folding table sharing ideas as quickly as they can speak. Perhaps this allows their culture and projects to evolve more quickly as well.

By comparison, there are few chemistry message boards, and only the open access journals like chemistry central include a comments thread alongside every peer-reviewed research paper, and conferences are dry, twice-a-year poster and powerpoint affairs.

It makes perfect sense that information technology for laboratory scientists would lag behind that which is at the disposal of career programmers, because the coders can make their own. But despite that understanding, I want more. I want lightning talks, and hack days, and zillions of active boards for biologists and chemists and physicists.

Instead, I have absolutely no idea what goes on in the labs on either side of mine. I know what topics my neighbors are studying, but I don't see the nitty gritty details. Concrete walls separate us.

Increasing the rate at which laboratory science evolves is a challenge for architects. Would researchers work more effectively in cavernous labs that allow them to interact more fluidly with hundreds rather than a handful of other scientists? Could a business profit from renting out a venue where scientists temporarily set up camp to show each other the latest techniques? While it may be impractical, it would seem far more colorful than simply meeting in a convention center and watching slide shows.

Rare stories of organic chemists bringing insect pheromones or other oddities with them to conferences are the stuff of legend.

There is a small silver lining to this cloud. Websites like the Journal of Visualized Experiments have sprung up to share the minutia of what goes on in labs -- allowing researchers from across the globe to reproduce complicated procedures with less difficulty. But still, there is something to be said for being there.


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Granted, it would be immensely difficult, and possibly dangerous, for a hundred chemists or biologists to bring all of their instruments to a suburban home and set up shop for the weekend.
True...but do they really need all of their instruments?...
Granted, anything medical and many areas of chemistry are likely to be out of the question in a setting like this, but I think at least some work could be done viably in fields like environmental chemistry, environmental microbiology, biological systems engineering, food science, and so forth. Plus, the "data-crunching" portions of just about any field.
Another possibility: field trips. There's no reason a bunch of geologists, chemists, ecologists, icthyologists, microbiologists, cultural anthropologists (to watch the tourists), and just about any other "-ist" couldn't collectively make a pilgrimage to a major national park or similar site on their own initiative. (Being in the Yellowstone National Park area this is obviously the first one that comes to mind, but there are plenty of others around the country).
Sort of a "ScienceCafe'" held somewhere out in the Big Room(whence comes the name of my blog...), where some horizontal meme transfer can occur between scientists of different fields.

This is an interesting idea. I do think there is a difference in epistemology for what scientists do and what software developers do, however.

I don't think the model would work well for theory development, but there is a huge overlap in the area of "practices". I see an analogy between accepted software practices and such things as accepted routes of organic synthesis, or reagants of choice.

Does the communciation of a new organic synthesis route need the same rigorous peer-review publication as does groundbreaking and controversial work?

On a different note, software development requires many hours of solitary intense focus, punctuated by periods of close collaboration.

Any environment that promotes those very different working modes well is a winner. I solved that problem in my company by allowing my developers to telecommute at least half the time and be in the office the other half.