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Changing the World, One Weekend at a Time

2nd October 2018
By Jean Liu

Every summer, a large group of scientists, thinkers, technologists, creators, and communicators converge in Mountain View, California to participate in “Science Foo Camp”. Affectionately known as “Sci Foo”, the annual invite-only event takes place over three days and is co-organized by Google, O’Reilly Media, and Digital Science, with support from Nature.

From its inception in 2006, Sci Foo has always been hosted at Google’s famed headquarters: the Googleplex. However, for this year’s event, a larger Google venue — the secretive “X” (formerly “Google X”) — played host to more than 300 attendees, who made up the largest invite list in Sci Foo’s history. The halls of X, home of many ambitious “moonshots” like self-driving cars and Internet balloons, served as an inspiring backdrop for Sci Foo attendees.

Sci Foo is not your traditional scientific conference. The schedule, which is sprinkled with keynotes, lightning talks, and meal times, is otherwise open to be filled up with “unconference” sessions that the attendees themselves organize and run. Attendees are free to rove from session-to-session, and choose whichever ones grab their curiosity. Unconference sessions are by their nature unconstrained and may take the form of discussions, debates, or lectures. But the most successful and exciting sessions are always the ones that demand interactivity, and active participation from attendees of diverse backgrounds.

Part of the enduring appeal of Sci Foo is its ability to stimulate creative intellectual energy within a multidisciplinary group of individuals, who might not ordinarily have many opportunities to meet, socialize, share expertise, or discuss areas of mutual interest with each other. As in past years, this year’s sessions were incredibly far-ranging and diverse in their content. From mental health and mind reading to living off-world, attendees had a dizzying array of fascinating sessions to choose from.

This year, we were able to make a short film at SciFoo taking advantage of the great mixture of people attending. We asked a small group of them what changes we might see over the next 50 years – their answers were fascinating. 

Despite having no fixed programme and no constraints on format, many themes did manage to emerge from the various unconference sessions and lightning talks. Understanding (and optimizing) human well-being and productivity came up twice in lightning talks, with two speakers covering the science of happiness (Laurie Santos of Yale University) and the science of success (Dashun Wang of Northwestern University). Medicine also featured prominently throughout the three days of Sci Foo: Liz Wayne (UNC-Chapel Hill) gave a brilliant lightning talk about hacking immune cells for drug delivery, and there were also animated discussions about the coming superbug apocalypse (a session led by Paula Salgado of Newcastle University and Kara Hoover of the University of Alaska Fairbanks), new techniques for the early detection of cancer (a session led by Daniel Kim of University of California, Santa Cruz), and an innovative game that may improve recovery in stroke patients (a session led by John Krakauer of Johns Hopkins Medical School).

The relationship of human and machine came up not just in recurring conversations about AI but in a fascinating reframing by Bertolt Meyer (Chemnitz University of Technology). His lightning talk “Disabled or Cyborg?” highlighted how attitudes towards human augmentation vary depending on our perception of the competence and the intentions of those being augmented. A disabled person with a robotic prosthesis evokes a very different response than an augmented soldier or athlete, yet as prosthetics improve, a former disability may effectively give humans superpowers.

Sustainability and the interaction of nature with technology were important themes that wove through many sessions: for instance, Natsai Audrey Chieza (Faber Futures) ran a session about how biotechnology could help build a sustainable future and Eben Bayer (Ecovative) used his lightning talk to focus on the potential of “microbial cyborgs” for converting ordinary chemicals into useful compounds. Additionally, notable science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson examined factors that would help humankind have “a good anthropocene”, while Thomas Culhane from National Geographic demonstrated how “biodigesters” fed with kitchen waste could help humans live off-grid in a fully self-sufficient way.

Remarkable new understandings about the role of climate events in the fall of Rome and the collapse of ancient Aegean civilizations were highlighted in a lightning talk by Malcolm Wiener (The Institute for Aegean Prehistory), and an unconference session by Malcolm Wiener and Michael McCormick (the Harvard Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.) The past provides urgent warnings about the way that climate events, mass migrations, pandemics, and bad political decisions can come together with catastrophic results.

The intersection of music and science communication took centre stage at various points at Sci Foo. Elodie Chabrol (Pint of Science) hosted a fantastic session on best practices of science communication, which was summarized in rap form by science rapper Baba Brinkman; Baba also delighted attendees in a separate session with his rhymes about evolution and consciousness. Felix Rundel and Matyas Kovacs of Falling Walls also channelled the content of scientific books and articles through an impromptu underground rave scene, set to Berlin-style techno house music.

Many talks and sessions captured the political zeitgeist of the day. The topics of fake news, social media, and data privacy came up frequently: research about fake news featured prominently in an unconference session and lightning talk by David Rand (Yale University), and the polarization of behaviour by social media was discussed in a session led by Bertolt Meyer (Chemnitz University of Technology). Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter (UC Berkeley) also led a discussion about how we might build and adjust our own “news diets”, given that news pulls the levers on society’s behaviours and world views. On the final day of Sci Foo, Kate Clancy (University of Illinois) and Leslie Vosshall (Rockefeller University) also channelled the spirit of the #MeToo movement into their energetic, inspirational unconference session called “#ScienceToo”.

During this eclectic event, the most rewarding thing that one can ever hear an attendee say is, “I’ve never thought of things that way before”. By bringing a wide range of experts together, Sci Foo is able to foster collaboration between scientists and thinkers from different disciplines, encourage curiosity and learning, as well as help to establish new and lasting friendships. At the heart of this yearly event is an enduring hope — hope that, through collaboration, we can build a better future together.

Special thanks to the many “scribes” from Digital Science and the X team who helped to take notes on the sessions that were featured in this blog post. Did you know? Previous attendees recommend peers to attend Sci Foo, so if you do receive an invitation for next year’s Sci Foo, it means that someone has read, seen, and appreciated your work!

About the Author

Jean Liu is Head of Product (Altmetric) and was a Camp Counsellor at Sci Foo. Jean joined Altmetric in 2012, initially as the data curator and blog editor. She is responsible for understanding the needs of Altmetric’s users, shaping the roadmap, and working with the development team to deliver great software. Jean holds a Master’s degree in Neuroscience and Pharmacology.

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