SciFoo: 200 of the World’s Top Scientists Meet at Google’s Annual Meeting of Really, Really Smart People

Friday, August 15, 2008

Organized in collaboration with Nature Publishing Group and O’Reilly Media (“FOO” stands for “Friends of O’Reilly”), and hosted at the Googleplex, the third annual Science Foo Camp (SciFoo) unconference boasts no predefined agenda. Rather, participants are invited to propose their session topics on a giant white board, in various time slots with eight sessions running concurrently.

Most academic conferences are highly specialized and attended time and again by the same people. Here, to promote fruitful cross-pollination, participants hail from dozens of science and technology disciplines, from biology and astrophysics to CS and nano-technology. Attendance is invitation only; in the interest of mixing things up, many of the 200+ participants are not invited twice. “SciFoo allows people at different institutions and from different disciplines to interact with each other,” says Open Source Programs Manager Chris DiBona, who spearheads SciFoo. “It gives them a rare chance to talk freely with each other in a private setting.”

This year, the conference was attended by Eric, Sergey, Larry Page, and Larry Brilliant of, along with a bevy of Google organizers and volunteers. The list of "campers" boasted four Nobel Prize winners (Sydney Brenner, Walter Gilbert, Andy Fire, and Frank Wilczek) and a laundry list of champions in the scientific community. Here are just a few: George Dyson (scientific historian), Brian Cox (physics popularizer, spokesman at CERN), Aubrey de Grey (biomedical gerontologist who studies "living young longer"), Eugenie Scott (director, National Center for Science Education), Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ (astromer at the Vatican), Neal Stephenson (science fiction writer), Nick Bostrom (transhumanist philosopher), Dan Tani (NASA astronaut, who has spent 131 days in space), Steward Brand (creator of The Whole Earth Catalog), Jill Bolte Taylor (neuroanatomist, author of the recent bestseller My Stroke of Insight [see TED talk]), notable theoretical physicists Lord Martin Rees (England's Astronomer Royal), Max Tegmark, Paul Davies, Lee Smolin, and renown oceanographer Sylvia Earle. To give the conference some umph, rocket scientist Carl Dietrich brought along a model of his Terrafugia "roadable aircraft," also known as a flying car, and Ian Wright parked his X1 all electric performance car, capable of 0-60 MPH in 3.07 seconds, by the dining tent.

Certain themes recurred. One was the need to do a better job of open sourcing data within the science community, including negative results; such sharing would enable collaboration and prevent scientists from "reinventing the wheel." A number of seminars also addressed the more quotidian concerns of studying science, from navigating office politics in academia to finding ways of making the discipline more exciting to young people. Many talks were also informed by specific social and humanitarian concerns, such as how Google can help detect emerging global pandemics, how genomic testing can help people prevent diseases, and, in a nutshell, what we can all do to ensure the long-term survival of the human race.

“A scientifically literate world is one that’s good for everyone,” DiBona says, summarizing the intent behind the conference. “People who are better educated will better understand what's possible on the Internet. As Googlers, I think it's incumbent on us to try to support basic science research and education around the world."

You can learn more about SciFoo by checking out the blog buzz and news coverage aggregated at