Everyone else is writing about it, so it’s probably about time that I did too.
SciFoo ‘07 was wonderfully intense, mind-expanding and surreal. Organisationally, it was a bit less stressful than last year’s inaugural event (at least for me), mainly because we knew it was going to work to some degree. Indeed, the success of SciFoo ‘06 lead to a fair amount of anticipation this year, best described in words by Jonathan Eisen and in pictures by Pierre Lindenbaum. (See also Pierre’s cartoons from the event itself.)
Such is the variety and (relative) anarchy of the event that there’s no such thing as one SciFoo experience, only 200+ personal experiences. To give a feel of the occasion, read Henry Gee’s opening post and have a look at Bora’s photos, photos, and more photos. What follows is a very brief description of a few of my experiences.
We kicked off the event on Friday evening. After everyone had introduced themselves in (more or less) three words, we unleashed them on the schedule boards, which quickly filled up with wide range of proposed sessions. Then we asked a few of the attendees to give talks in front the whole group of around 200 people. One of them was Charles Simonyi, who described his recent trip into space with a short video and a great Q&A session. His partner, Martha Stewart also explained about the food that she helped to arrange for the voyage.
On Saturday morning, after thinking about it for quite a while, I skipped the publishing-related topics. I had come to SciFoo for something new, so I went to a lot of physics sessions. The prospect of learning about quantum computing, the nature of time, and multiverses from the likes of Frank Wilczek, Martin Rees, Lee Smolin and Neal Stephenson was simply irresistible. But perhaps my favourite session of all was George Dyson’s talk about the amazing human story of Kurt Gödel’s journey from Europe to America in 1940, his mental health problems, and the attempt by the US government, once he got to the country, to draft him into the military. I always enjoy George’s talks, but what made this one extra-special was the presence of his father, Freeman, who worked alongside Gödel and other great names at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He was full of anecdotes which served to remind us that science, for all it’s dry rationalism, is at heart an intensely messy, human activity. I also really enjoyed Lincoln Stein’s talk about Jim Watson’s genome, Pete Worden’s session about avoiding collisions with near-earth asteroids, and Paul Sereno’s display of amazing dinosaur bones.
Many people seemed to have a blast. I did too. What other event brings together people like Eric Lander, Lincoln Stein, Frank Wilczek, Andy Fire, Martin Rees, Freeman Dyson, Lee Smolin, Paul Sereno, PZ Myers, Bjorn Lomborg, Eric Drexler, Charles Simonyi, Danny Hillis, Larry Page, Jim Hendler, Esther Dyson, Jeff Hawkins, Sergey Brin, Vinod Khosla, Carl Djerassi, Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Randi and Martha Stewart? And that’s not to mention the many great young scientists who are going to be the superstars of their generation. To sum up, I’ll turn to Henry Gee again: “Someday all conferences will be like this.”