Catch-up blogging: a month ago I was at SciFoo 2007, which I didn’t blog at the time because I was too busy having fun, and haven’t blogged since because I am well known to be of a dilatory nature. Also, it had been blogged at the time by various people, such as Jon Eisen, and written up nicely by George Dyson on Edge, and you can get more views and pictures on the subject than anyone might really need on Nature’s SciFoo page. But my colleague Lucy cajoled me into writing a short piece for the little magazine Nature distributes to its authors, and having written it I thought I’d post it here too.
Twenty years ago, I would have thought there was pretty much nothing cooler than to be in a room with the physicist Freeman Dyson and the science fiction writer Greg Bear. And I’d have thought flying a UAV over the Googleplex with the editor in chief of Wired was pretty cool too – if any of those words had meant anything at all back then. And at this year’s SciFoo I got to do both.
There are two problems with trying to describe SciFoo, the event that Google, O’Reilly—a technology publisher and conference organiser—and Nature have held on an August weekend for the past two years. One is trying not to sound smug, and the other is trying not to sound star-struck. The format is simple: about 200 people with something to say about science are invited by the three organisations to spend a weekend at the Googleplex, Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California. Some are graduate students, some have Nobel prizes, some have riches beyond the dreams of avarice and some are a touch on the eccentric side – but pretty much all of them have something to say that is worth listening to, and a keen interest in listening to other people opening up new ideas.
After a mammoth Friday night introduction session in which every one is asked to describe him or herself in three words (most cheat) the assembled company is presented with a set of big whiteboards divided up by time slot and by room. And they fill up those whiteboards with talks and suggestions for debate on everything from the murder in Essex that brought about the end of Britain’s 1960s pirate radio boom to the prospects for quantum cryptography, from bioterrorism to the problems of the patent system, from terraforming to Godel’s relationship with the draft board.
I wish I’d been able to go to all of them. From what I did manage to get to I learned about aspects of energy technology I was ignorant of, and picked up some ideas about asteroids and algorithms I hope to make a lot more of in the year to come. I got to introduce people who might never normally meet and have a lot in common. I hope I saw conversations which in years to come will be remembered as the starting points for collaborations, for new approaches, and for friendships.
But perhaps the most memorable thing was the unmanned aerial vehicle flight with Chris “Long Tail” Anderson. I’ve known Chris for years – we worked on The Economist together, and I’ve been a contributing editor at Wired throughout his tenure there as editor. I like him enough that I’m not terribly jealous of the fact that Time thinks he is one of the 100 thinkers shaping the world. And one of the things I like about him is his ability to focus on truly geeky enthusiasms. The current one is turning remote controlled toy planes into surveillance or mapping drones with the help of off the shelf digital cameras, GPS chipsets, various mechanical kludges and a range of autopilots, some made out of Lego. Bright and early one morning I watched him put one of his creations through its paces, flying over Google’s offices and bringing back images with a resolution of about five centimetres that Chris displayed to a packed and enthusiastic audience a few hours later.
It was an imprssive demonstration of William Gibson’s old dictum that the street finds its own uses for technology. Small, lightweight mobile imaging sensors like this will change all sorts of things, from ecological research to policing to terrorism (though Chris is convinced that the postal service is a far better way to deliver a bomb, if you’re that way inclined). But watching the drone circle through the clear Californian sky at daybreak, it also seemed to sum up the spirit of the Foo: coming together, getting things done, inspiring each other – and seeing things in a new way.
Update after writing this — there’s an interesting discussion on to what extent open-source approaches to UAVs have worrying dual use implications now going on on Chris’s blog, inspired by a very enterprising young Iranian. And you can sample blogging by a wide range of SciFooers at the campfire.
Second update: The editor of Nature in typical company
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