Tales from Science Foo Camp at the Googleplex: Simon Garnier's Journey to a 'Woodstock of the Mind'

Biologist Simon Garnier joined 250 other scientists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and artists from around the globe at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. over an August weekend for a supercharged jam fest of ideas known as Science Foo Camp.

Camping at Google’s HQ with Renowned Innovators in Science and Technology

Every August, 250 scientists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and artists from around the globe gather for a weekend at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. for a supercharged jam fest of ideas known as Science Foo Camp – Sci Foo for short. The invitation-only event, sponsored by Digital Science, O'Reilly Media, and Google, with support from Nature, is billed as a “happening” that brings together groundbreaking thinkers in science and technology to “explore topics that transcend traditional boundaries.” Lord Martin Rees, the British astrophysicist, Astronomer Royal and veteran camper, dubbed the gathering a ‘Woodstock of the Mind.’ Reporting back from his first-ever trip to Sci Foo, NJIT biologist Simon Garnier called it “a thrill – one of the most stimulating science experiences imaginable.”

Thursday 3 p.m.: Hitching a ride with the inventor of StretchSense

Garnier’s Sci Foo journey began serendipitously at the San Francisco airport, where he was offered a lift to the ‘Googleplex’ by Benjamin O’Brien, a New Zealand scientist who created a flexible, sensor-laden fabric that records body movements. “This is an amazing technology with so many applications, from sports rehabilitation to animation. It can analyze the efficiency of a batter’s swing, for instance,” Garnier recounted. Later that night, they met British inventor Adam Montandon, the creator of the Eyeborg, a biomechatronic device that transforms color into sound, allowing color-blind people to perceive what they can’t see through another medium.

Friday 6 p.m.: Dinner with Google Co-founder Sergey Brin

Sci Foo officially starts on Friday evening when the 250 guests converge at the Googleplex for dinner. Garnier found himself seated at a picnic table “surrounded by some of the most brilliant people in the world,” including Google co-founder Sergey Brin, thinking, “what a formidable honor to have been invited to share a weekend with such a smart crowd.”

With no set agenda for the weekend apart from the request to propose ‘blue sky’ ideas for discussion, the Sci Foo campers started planning for the next day by posting discussion topics on a message board. Garnier, whose lab studies swarm intelligence –  the organization of large animal groups such as ant colonies and human crowds – posted a session on self-regulating societies with one of the experts in the field, Dirk Helbing, a physicist and sociologist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), who models social systems.

Saturday 9 a.m.: Sci Foo Campers Retool Today, Design Tomorrow

Notable presenters included neuroscientist Henry Markram of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, whose Blue Brain Project involves the construction of a virtual brain in a supercomputer, and Josh Bongard of the University of Vermont, the creator of robots that evolve by a sort of Darwinian selection process en route to maximum efficiency. “Topics ranged from important, practical problems such as the reproducibility of scientific experiments to big ideas that imagine future societies,” Garnier recalled.

“Dirk and I talked about how to use data to improve urban life in a number of ways, such as accurately assessing crowds and managing traffic, for example. We have the tools. Sensors are embedded in more and more things and they provide real-time data. The question is how we use this information to redesign public arenas like city streets, creating a system able to respond dynamically – and autonomously – to changes in the environment by redirecting cars, for example. But how do we ensure the accuracy of data gathered through social networks or gather data from individuals without breaching their privacy? These are some of the challenges.”

Saturday 9 p.m.: The Super Nerd Party Continues into the Wee Hours

After the regular session ended, scores of freeform discussions broke out all over the Googleplex Ballroom in groups assembled around artificial campfires and in the inflatable pool.  “No matter where you sat, you learned something new,” noted Garnier, who met Daniel Suarez, the author of such techno-thrillers as Daemon and Influx, at about 1 a.m. A roaming ukulele player riffed on the conversations as she passed by.

And yes, very late at night, scientists do tell ghost stories. Or their non-fiction cousins anyway – professional close shaves and near-death experiences. Garnier recounted one researcher’s harrowing account of a missed flight and lost passport that left her stranded for several weeks in a remote region of Siberia where she had been collecting tissue samples from frozen mammoths. At about 3 a.m., with East Coast professional duties calling, he hopped in a cab back to the airport.

Sunday 5 a.m.: The Journey Home with a Detour in Princeton

Garnier’s Sci Foo trip was cut short by the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society, a professional conference held at Princeton University this year that attracted nearly 900 researchers. He was slated to co-lead a workshop at 7 p.m. that night on new technologies, including computer vision and telemetry, to collect, analyze and model data on large-scale animal and human social behaviors. “We invited several of the most promising young researchers in the field. It was thrilling to see how they embraced new technologies to collect data on wild animal groups that would have been impossible to obtain just a few years back,” he recounted.

Late that night, Garnier reflected on what he called “a weekend of scientific marvels.” “I will definitely collaborate with some of the people I met over the last four days,” he says. “For instance, Josh Bongard and I have a lot of common interests. His evolving robots can help us understand how evolution has led to ant colonies being able to build large, self-regulating structures and societies while no single ant has more than 300,000 neurons. Imagine what we could do if we decided to use some of their organizational principles to reshape our cities or our institutions?”