Tuesday, August 17, 2010

SciFoo 2010 and its Disney World of Big Ideas

SciFoo is annual gathering of scientists, technologists, and geeks in general held at Googleplex in Mountain View.

SciFoo is 24 hours away. Pretrip planning becomes calm excitement as the participant updates grow on the wiki. The list reads like a runway show of scientists and technologists. Bob Langer, Frank Wilczek, Esther Dyson, Jaron Lanier, Bill Nye.

It’s not a name dropping contest. The list is interrupted by awesome descriptions of new people and ideas that are now on my Must-Meet/Must-See List.
Big Data: Exascale Astronomy

Open-source drug discovery: possible or not?

The Joys and Sorrows of Blogging on a Network

Do We Live in a Multiverse?

What is the minimum publishable unit? And should we start doing it?

Automating Science

Motivating People to Help the World's Poor

Lab Books 2.0
So I plan—the type of planning you'd do at Disney World to make sure you meet your favorite characters. Remember how dad would optimize the schedule to be first in line for Space Mountain and Tomorrowland Transit Authority? That's me scribbling people's bio's and the session suggestions.

We’re not in Florida and it’s not Disney. This is SciFoo at the Googleplex—Space Mountain has the possibility of going to a one of many multiverses according to Alan Guth, and the car designs in Tomorrowland could be explained by evolutionary design instructions presented by Cornell’s Hod Lipson. Instead of Cinderella, we get a Nobel Prize winning physicist, a fossil expert, a baby psychologist, a chemical-informatics-expert-turned-world-economic-data-indexer and a science toy expert. That and a guy who reconstructed Babbage’s Difference Engine.

Out of Legos.

Nature, Wired, Discover, PNAS, and the Science and Technology Sections of the New York Times have come alive.

Disney World turns into a Black Friday frenzy as folks dash to two-day scheduling board to secure session spot. Here's where I am awed the controlled chaos that the SciFoo team creates: Small details like blocking of certain hours for people arriving late. Printing every single
participate picture on the wall so you can recognize cool people to run into. Generous sources of caffeine. Handing out tiny little red notebooks to write anything, because you are swimming in ideas. Tim O'Reilly's strong suggestion to stay off the computer and focus on the content and face-to-face interaction.

Photo taken by Easternblot

Friday night begins to paint a multicolored picture of the weekend.

References to fire hoses are woefully inadequate. I meet up with Vaughan Bell, a British neuropsychologist working in Colombia, to plan a session “The State of Third World Science”. Logistics in place, we check out the outdoor bar, where I find some doughnuts with Michelle Khine and trade notes on lab-on-a-chip systems made from Shrinky Dinks. Carnegie-Mellon’s Adrien Treuille and I seem to be on someone's favorite invite list–we ran into each other at PCAST three weeks ago. The co-developer of Fold It and I trade ideas on nebulizer flow simulation.

Then I run into Simon Field from SciToys.com. We’ve never met–but we are on each other's list and spend the next couple days brainstorming ideas for my next medical device. Simon gave me a crash course on DIY optics which led to a laser microscope construction with two webcam lenses he gave me. This will come in handy as a class exercise if I write about instant prototyping anytime soon.

Speaking of writing, it’s textbooks that have the group at 9 AM on Saturday all excited–the future of textbook that is. After that, I’m about to go to Matt Todd’s talk on Open Science but it's 10 AM and realized that Vaughn and I are up in Beirut (the name of the room) to kick off our discussion on Third World Science and Scientists. What else would you do on a Saturday morning in sunny California.

To find out about the conclusions of our talk click here. After this, it’s decisions decisions decisions so I crashed the lightning talks and pay attention to Three Rules for Mad Scientists (Garrett Lisi), Carl Zimmer's Three Rules to be Understood;

From his Blog:

After that, Jonah Lerer describes how to engineer aha moments, I have one of my very own. I run into rapid prototyping guru Hod Lipson from Cornell (Fab@Home). I get a crash course–I get a lot of the these over the weekend— on our RP tech and its future. He went on to host two sessions where he challenged us to describe the killer app for personal fabrication. My money’s diagnostic manufacturing and on-demand drugs for remote regions .

Fabrication, objects, convenience and immediacy took a back seat during a fiery discussion on the Templeton Foundation where I got to meet Dan Barcay of Google and Hal Abelson of MIT–Cambridge geeks tend to gravitate, especially when we can commiserate about the awful weather waiting for us back home. After mentally bracing the upcoming weather we brainstormed on using the new Android Inventor App for interfacing medical technologies in the developing world. Stay tuned for an update from Cambridge on that one.

Back in Cambridge is where you find Derek Lowe, of Vetter Pharmaceuticals who co-presented with Matt Todd on their quest to pursue the first-ever open source drug discovery platform. They are crowdsourcing drug discovery. Everyone can help!

That's in fact the point that Peter Singer is trying to convey when he talks about this book The Life You Can Save and its message about helping the poor through the individual commitments of everyday people.

It's 5 PM and my brain is running faster than I can talk—sentences seem to fade off as constantly get distracted…that’s Tim O’Reilly, wait did that other guy say prototyping structures out of DNA…I want to try Simon’s Air Canon.

I'm next and I’m not going to lie— kind of freaking out because no one voted for my session: DIY Medical Technologies. I'll be happy if 5 people show up–including a friend from MIT. MEDIKit in hand, I find that the room is full, the projector is ready (after some trial and error) and I try my darnedest to focus on being open and candid. We’re not selling research, we’re sharing what’s working and what’s not. This is by far the smartest group of folks I've encountered, let alone present to. They wowed me with their questions, challenge my positions, and played with our gadgets. DIY Medical Tech might make it after all.

As the evening opens up for dinner, I strike to strike a conversation with a bioethicist on the merits of regulatory reform for global health medical devices; schedule prototypes of diagnostics with Hal Abelson, learn about open source microscopy environments from Jason Swedlow.

It's easy, it's friendly and these folks have nothing to prove but everything to share. Disney should learn from Scifoo because for geeks, this is the Magic Kingdom, where we can wish upon a star, or rapid prototype your own.

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