Scientists Camp Out* At Google

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Last month, around 250 invited scientists and science-related journalists, artists, and educators flocked to Google for the fourth annual Science Foo Camp (SciFoo). SciFoo is an unconference jointly presented by Google, O'Reilly Media, and Nature Publishing.

In true Google tradition, the conference began with dinner, followed by an orientation session led by conference hosts Tim O'Reilly, Sara Winge, Chris DiBona, and Timo Hannay. Immediately after, the schedule for the weekend was created by attendees covering large boards with giant post-it notes of topics.

Tim O'Reilly, Sara Winge, Chris DiBona and Timo Hannay open the conference
(Photo Credit: Suhky Dhaliwal and Ellen Ko)

Filling in the schedule boards
(Photo Credit: Bertalan Meskó)

Attendees came from all branches of science and technology, and included luminaries such as Marvin Minksy, Louise Leakey, Peter Diamandis, Bill Nye, and George Smoot. But the conference isn't only for the famous. There were many physicists, biologists, psychiatrists, chemists, and almost every other -ist represented. Experimental poet Christian Bok and puzzle maker Pavel Curtis provided interesting views on many topics.

The sessions were as varied as the attendees. Things discussed included artificial intelligence, the challenges of science education, cartoon physics, space travel, climate change, swine flu, data sharing, microbes, and more. That list doesn't even begin to scratch the surface, or include conversations had when a rocket scientist and a computational biologist sit down at the same table for lunch.

Jam session at the campground
(Photo Credit: Suhky Dhaliwal and Ellen Ko)

The event wasn't all discussion, Google demo'ed a street view tricycle and a holodeck -- tools for collecting and displaying geodata. The holodeck even provided an opportunity to visit all of Earth and Mars.

Google Earth as seen in the holodeck
(Photo Credit: Suhky Dhaliwal and Ellen Ko)

You couldn't put this many scientists in one place without doing some real science. Dr. Larry Weiss brought supplies for performing MRSA screening. Googler volunteers discovered that you could get almost anyone to stick a giant q-tip up their nose in the name of science. Lapsed Googler Simon Quellen Field and Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research, created ice cream with only milk, sugar, liquid nitrogen, and power tools.

Simon Quellen Field and Theodore Gray make liquid nitrogen ice cream

Baris Baser, SciFoo volunteer, describes SciFoo as "hands down one of my favorite events at Google. I really enjoy how it brings volunteers together from different offices and departments. The spontaneity makes it unpredictable and unique."

For more information on what went on at SciFoo '09 visit Nature's aggregator or Google Blog Search.

*and no, there was no actual camping at SciFoo Camp ;)