I had no idea what to expect. The invitation to something called an “unconference” came in April amid half a dozen other conference invitations. But there was something about this one that intrigued me. First, it was a “Science Friends of O’Reilly” meeting, meaning Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media fame. Second, Digital Science/Nature and Google are sponsors of SciFoo. This seemed different and different always entices me, so I eagerly agreed to go not really understanding what it was about.
Searching for information on SciFoo revealed it to be “casual, informal, and spontaneous”. Still, I had no idea on what to expect from something that was billed as an “unconference” until reading this piece by Scott Berkun on “How to run a great unconference session“. My tendency is to simply observe before participating, but reading Scott’s piece, I figured the best approach is to head for the deep end and jump in as an active participant rather than as an observer, which turns out, is a good strategy.
SciFoo Protip: If you get an invite to SciFoo, be prepared to rush the scheduling board very first thing and compete with the other 249 invitees to paste a Post-It note with a title and names of people that will be presenting at your session. I was unprepared for how fast that process would happen, but it happens *fast*. Put the session name, a description and names of participants on it.
I hosted one session on Connectomics with the goal of explaining why The Singularity / mind uploading / brain freezing and mind preservation is practically, mathematically and scientifically untenable. The subtext was that the hype surrounding connectomics has harmed the field and distracted from the more proximal value of 1) understanding how neural systems are wired 2) learning how to approach studying neural circuits so we can understand what goes wrong in diseases like blinding disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, etc… and 3) learning how neural systems compute information so that knowledge can be applied to algorithmic and computer design.
I also participated in a session on using technology to augment our senses with Anna Harris (@), David Eagleman (@davideagleman), Tamar Makin, Davide Danovi (@davide_danovi) and Carrie Partch where we discussed the technical approaches and ethics of sensory augmentation for those who have lost senses like vision or hearing or experienced amputation.
There are many sessions at SciFoo and you will not be able to attend them all. There is no way to see everything and you will/may feel like you are missing out on something. This is because you will be. This year, other sessions I attended were on deception, given by Apollo Robbins (@ApolloRobbins), bat echolocation and the use of drones by Laura Kloepper (@ProfLKloepper), a CRISPR lab where Sly Lee (@slyjacklee), Chris Anderson (@chr1sa) and I genetically engineered yeast, an astrophysics session, lighting sessions on pneumatic food engineering, and more. However, the most intensely valued aspect to me was the meetings with people in between sessions or at meals. There were fanboy moments where I got to chat indirectly with Rodney Mullen, started a discussion with Masayo Takahashi that I’ll follow up on in Japan in a few weeks, and met Rob Cook of Pixar’s Renderman fame where we talked science and science funding. I talked geo policy and global tipping points with Elizabeth Hadly (@LizHadly), and there was a particularly excellent set of talks with Michael Herf (@herf) and Linda Stone (@LindaStone) that I am very much looking forward to continuing. Last, but most definitely not least, an epic conversation on science and drug policy as it pertains to anti-convulsant drugs with Fred Vogelstein (@fvogelstein) that I want very much to follow up on.
I was disappointed to hear that photography was not going to be allowed in the conference buildings because it was Google’s policy of no photography indoors. So, the photographic take from the conference was limited to outdoors and at meals. What follows is a little visual insight into SciFoo and some of this years attendees from moments outside of sessions.
Fred Vogelstein talking about epilepsy and drug development.
Michael Herf talking about circadian rhythm biology and how to influence it via the visual system.
Apollo Robbins meeting to talk about the science of augmentation before the sessions.
Anna Harris on the shuttle to Google before our session on prosthetics.
Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson making notes on the bus to Google… Lemme say that again… Kim Stanley Robinson. Kim *freaking* Stanley Robinson! Yeah, another fan boy moment.
David Eagleman meeting with us before our session on augmentation.
Carrie Partch discussing out session on prosthetic augmentation and remembering some of her favorite students.
Rob Cook talking about science funding and retinas.
Linda Stone talking with Michael Herf and I about prosthetics.
Myself, Sly and Chris showing off our CRISPR genetic engineering experiment.
Sly Lee after one of the sessions.
Michael Hendricks and Bobby Kasthuri.
Bobby, also freaking out and having a fan boy moment after seeing Kim Stanley Robinson.
Brian Dias after sessions.
Eli Powell after one of the sessions. Eli studies bees and I would have loved to have had more time to talk about his work with bee microbiomes. This is just another example of all the wonderful thinking that you casually bump into and end up craving more information from at SciFoo.
Tamar Makin on the last night of SciFoo. This shot was slightly out of focus at that point because I was slightly out of focus. Apologies to Tamar, but thanks to Google for excellent beer.
My favorite moment, perhaps because it was so surprising, was the music at the end of the meeting. Two groups got together outside Building 44 and started jamming, one to pop music…
And the other to bluegrass. Nat Torkington (@gnat), Douglas Eck (@) played banjo and guitar respectively, while Sara Winge (@) played guitar and sang the most beautiful harmony (and yodeled). It was amazing and I was in Heaven. Sara, Nat and Douglas, thank you for allowing me to join you in song and thanks for playing John Prine.