Posts Tagged ‘SciFoo’

Science Comedian Essay in Symmetry Magazine

A few months ago I was asked to write an essay about being a science comedian for a really cool publication – Symmetry Magazine – and it finally came out today!

Symmetry is “a magazine about particle physics and its connections to other aspects of life and science” – and it’s put out jointly by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, two national labs funded by the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy.

It’s available in print and online editions – and anyone can receive a free subscription to the print version simply by filling out a form.  That’s a benefit of it being paid for by our tax dollars.

Symmetry is a great science magazine for the layperson, giving fascinating glimpses into the world of subatomic particles and gigantic particle accelerators and the people who attend to them.

The current issue is particularly good!


The picture was taken by my friend John Gilbey during a session at SciFoo 2008 entitled “Seducing the Public With Science.”

Brian Malow Essay in Symmetry Magazine

Nature Abhors a Science Comedian

“I am at two with Nature.”  –  Woody Allen

* * *

Unlike Woody, today I am at one with Nature…  the magazine, anyway.  One page of it.

There’s a short Q&A with me in the current issue of Nature.  The writer/interviewer is Nick Thomas, who is not only a chemistry professor but also an impressively prolific freelance writer.

The photo was taken at SciFoo 2008 by John Gilbey…  although the background has been entirely photoshopped out, leaving me looking like a cut out for a Monty Python animation.

Still, I’m in Nature.  That’s pretty cool.

Did I say “abhors”?  I meant “adores.”

LabLit Interviews Science Comedian

I was gone but now I’m back, apparently.

Reasonably objective third-party proof of my existence is to be found in the form of an interview with me on – a website dedicated to “the culture of science in fiction & fact.”

I met LabLit editor Jennifer Rohn at SciFoo this year.  She’s a cell biologist at University College London, a writer for publications such as Nature, and a frequent blogger.  Her first novel, Experimental Heart, has just been published, too.  It’s available from Amazon or directly from the publisher, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. And, of course, it’s an example of “lab lit” – it’s described as a “romantic thriller set against the backdrop of contemporary scientific research.”

Jenny attended my science comedy session at SciFoo, and I participated in a session that she and John Gilbey presented entitled, “Seducing the Public with Science.”  It was one of my favorite sessions and was attended by Ann Druyan, Brother Guy Consolmagno, Kevin Grazier, Ben Goldacre, Tim O’Reilly, Eugenie Scott, Shelley Batts and others.

Anyway, Ian Brooks interviewed me and LabLit is an excellent website worth exploring and here’s a great place to start:

LabLit’s interview with science comedian Brian Malow.

SciFoo 2008: Panoramic Images

I took a decent number of pictures at SciFoo.  Luckily, I had the foresight to take a few series of shots – and, even luckier, I have a girlfriend who is a Photoshop Wizard.

It’s not always possible to merge images perfectly since the camera is changing position for each shot, but the results are pretty cool.  In fact, the artifacts of the merging process are fascinating, too.  Look for the seams.

The first image is from the opening session.  Tim O’Reilly, Timo Hannay, Sara Winge, and Chris DiBona can be seen up front, addressing the crowd.  Also prominent, to my eye, are Garrett Lisi‘s bald head on the far right and Simon Quellen Field‘s well-appointed head in semi-profile left of center.

Click through for bigger versions…

The next image is Google’s large indoor open space referred to as Charlie’s, if I’m not mistaken.  Paul Davies and Chris Patil are prominent and the cafeteria area is in the background…

The final image is from the SciFoo closing session.  Once again, Sara, Tim, Chris, and Timo are up front.  Aniruddh Patel is near-center because he was sitting next to me before I stood to take these pics.

Jim Hardy – as promised, the waiting is over, here is your prize – you have the distinction of appearing not once, but twice in this image.  Yes, by virtue of your restlessness, you have been cloned.  In fact, there were originally three of you but one was removed.  To speak to you in your own language:  like pluripotent stem cells, you differentiated into three different germ Photoshop layers.  But only two were harvested…

Thank you, Tara.   🙂

Science Foo Camp 2008: Chapter 2 – The Hotel

The SciFoo experience begins before the first session – even before we get to the Googleplex (Get thee to the Googleplex!).

There was the Wiki, as previously discussed, for first virtual encounters.  Then SciFoo weekend arrived.

On Friday afternoon, my taller half and I checked into the Wild Palms Hotel in Sunnyvale.  Sadly, jealously, Tara would not be joining me at the unconference.  As I frolicked at the vast Google empire, she’d be getting to know every square inch of our little hotel room.  Whereas I’d be interacting with 200 scientists and science and science fiction writers, she’d be interfacing with a stack of science and science fiction books.  I’d have Neal Stephenson; she’d have The Diamond Age.  I’d have Ann Druyan; she’d have Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

Shuttles would begin ferrying campers to the Googleplex around 5:15pm.  Tara and I went down to the hotel lobby a little early to join the gathering crowd.  We rounded a corner and bumped right into Esther and George Dyson, sitting exactly as captured here in their natural habitat by Betsy Devine.  They were very sweet and wished us first-timers a great experience.

Minutes later, Prabhat Agarwal introduced himself.  Prabhat is a former condensed-matter physicist who now works for the Future and Emerging Technologies Unit at the European Commission.  His job is to identify and support new areas of information-related science, and he told us about his personal interest in how we recognize something as new.  I’m still convinced that we rely mostly on the new-concept smell.

Jim Hardy has a pic from a few minutes later of Tara and me talking to Brian Cox and his wife Gia Milinovich.  Tara and Gia are in opposition, and I’m nearly totally eclipsed by Brian.  John Gilbey’s left eye makes a special uncredited appearance.  [Jim sends along this link to a bigger version]

This was the first of several conversations I’d have with Brian and Gia.  Brian is a particle physicist who works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva.  Gia calls herself a science groupie and broadcaster.  She’s worked on some pretty cool stuff like the CERN podcast and Walking with Robots and the new X-Files movie.

They are not only a couple but also a couple of the people I’d see the most throughout the weekend.  We ended up in a lot of the same sessions, although I was sorry to miss Brian’s LHC session.

We talked a bit about the LHC and laughed about the well-publicized fear that it would create micro-black holes that would destroy the Earth.  Although there is a chance that MBH’s will be created, it would require that the universe contain a few extra unseen dimensions, an aspect that is wished for by string theorists and others but still unproven (at least by us terrans in our local 4-dimensional spacetime realm).  Also, if created, the black holes would be so small and likely disappear so quickly (due to Hawking Radiation) that they may be undetectable by the LHC’s sensors.  A far cry from devouring the planet.

For an excellent fictional treatment of a similar catastrophe on Mars, check out Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning short story, The Hole Man.  Much fun!

A few minutes before we started boarding the shuttles, Steve Goldfinger introduced himself to me and Tara.  He lives up in the Marin area, as I recall, and we live in SF.  Steve is co-founder of Global Footprint Network.  We sat together on the ride to the Googleplex, discussing sustainability (his field) and science comedy (mine).

Steve also mentioned having been impressed with some science fiction by Kim Stanley Robinson – although we laughed when he accidentally called him “Kim Stanley Andersen,” which I suggested was a mash-up with Hans Christian Andersen.

I don’t know which Robinson work he was talking about but sustainability was a major theme (which it often is for Robinson) and it was not the Mars Trilogy (perhaps the Three Californias Trilogy or his most recent novels Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below).

As we arrived at Google, Steve and I exchanged business cards.  I had a great time chatting with him, but after we left the shuttle, I only ever saw him in passing perhaps once more.

Tara reads Niven & Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye. On the nightstand: Asimov's The God's Themselves, Sagan & Druyan's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight. Tara is a voracious reader.

More SciFoo?

If you’re looking for more Science Foo Camp 2008 content, check the category list to the right – but, so far, I’ve only made a couple posts.

I have MUCH more coming soon…  there were so many amazing sessions and people that I’ll be talking about in future posts.  Plus, some really cool pics and maybe a bit of audio and video.

Stay tuned and thanks for being patient.

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Science Foo Camp 2008 on Nature Podcast

While at Science Foo Camp 2008, I grabbed a few quick interviews for the Nature podcast, which was posted today on  Just a few soundbites from attendees David Bauer, Brian Cox, Chris Patil, and Martin Rees. And a shout out to me.

It’s the latest episode so, for now, you can find it here.  When it gets moved to the archive, I’ll link to its permanent location.*

Thanks to everyone who took the time to speak to me!

* Update:  Here’s the podcast episode (21 August 2008) in mp3.  And also a text transcription.

Science Foo Camp 2008: Chapter 1 – The Wiki & What I Missed

[I’ve made one previous SciFoo post, in anticipation (and trepidation) of the approaching weekend.]

Where to begin? How to capture the essence of such an overwhelming experience? Nature! O’Reilly! The Googleplex! 200 certified science geniuses! No less than four (4) Nobel Laureates! And other incomplete sentences!

By design, Science Foo Camp has no real agenda until we get there and create it, and even then, it’s completely flexible. But, about three months in advance, a wiki was established for everyone to post to with descriptions of ourselves and ideas for sessions we’d like to see or lead. This was a great opportunity to learn a little bit about our fellow campers and to be that much more prepared by the time we got there, since time would be so precious.

[Note to Lee Smolin: I’m not sure about the rest of the Universe but, at SciFoo, the flow of time is very real and very fast.]

If you ever get the chance to attend SciFoo, take advantage of the wiki. Start early. Most of the campers posted brief bios with their areas of research and interests and links to homepages, blogs, companies, and organizations.  For the ones that didn’t, there’s Google.  If they’re at SciFoo, you won’t have any trouble finding ’em. Most of them have Wikipedia entries.

My only wish for “improving” the amazing creature that is SciFoo would be to lengthen it just a bit. I want more!  Perhaps extend the Friday and Sunday to full days. Give us just a little extra time to take it all in. There are so many fascinating people, so many intriguing sessions.  There’s no way to meet everyone or attend every session you’d like. With as many as fourteen (14!) simultaneous sessions in each hour time slot, no matter how much you experience, there’s still a sense that you missed out on a lot of cool stuff.

Of course, even if it were a week long, I’m sure I’d feel the same.

Betsy Devine\'s morning session

For the first session of the weekend, I missed Carl Dietrich’s “Energy for Long Distance Transportation” because I wanted to catch Betsy Devine’s “5-minute Talks by Smart People About Web 2.0 Tools for Science” (featuring Tim O’Reilly, Esther Dyson & Anne Wojcicki, Chris Anderson, Barend Mons, and Victoria Stodden).

And I missed Carl again, for the last session of the weekend, when he talked about his flying car, because I wanted to see Brother Guy Consolmagno explain why the Pope has an astronomer (and a meteorite collection!).

I really should’ve been at “Transforming Education – Making Science Fun and Relevant for Kids and Students,” but I wanted to hear Aubrey de Grey, Chris Patil, and Attila Csordas talk about Aging and Life Extension.

After a fascinating chat Saturday morning with Eric Wassermann on the 15-minute shuttle ride from the hotel to the Googleplex (about the experience of spirituality and the illusion of consciousness), I would’ve loved to have sat in on his session a few hours later about the ethics and implications of brain enhancement. But I also wanted to contribute to “Seducing the Public with Science” (initiated – on the wiki – by John Gilbey and Jenny Rohn – and including Tim O’Reilly,Seducing the Public - Tim O'Reilly, Marc Hodosh, Kevin Grazier, et al Ann Druyan, Marc Hodosh, Ben Goldacre, Eugenie Scott and others). And, at the exact same time, I was missing NASA Ames Director Pete Worden’s session on Settling Mars, and “LHC: The Universe and All That” with Brian Cox, Max Tegmark, Martin Rees, and Betsy’s husband, Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek!

Impossible choices that have to be made!

I missed Paul Stamets’ session on How Fungi Can Save the World, as well as Paul Davies’ session on Multiple Origins of Life and a “Shadow Biosphere” on Earth, and sessions on the WorldWide Telescope and brain reading neural prosthetics, the future of quantum computing, 23andMe, building better climate models, and several more – all in the Saturday 4pm time slot – because I wanted to sit in on a session with Lee Smolin, Max Tegmark, and Garrett Lisi called “Incubating Adventurous Science and the FQXi.”

It wasn’t until Sunday morning, when I got into a great conversation with the wonderful Dan Janzen about caterpillars and moths, that I realized I shouldn’t have missed his presentation the day before on DNA barcoding the world’s species – all 10,000,000 of them.

But what could I do?  I was up to my ears in dark matter – picking the brain of Patricia Burchat, head of the Physics department at Stanford, who helped me finally understand how we could know – from our narrow vantage point – that the expansion rate of the Universe has increased.

I could go on. And on. Expanding like the Universe. And that’s what the weekend was really about.

Looking over the list of campers, I figure I had substantial, interesting conversations with at least 50 different people, on probably 50 different topics – plus, I attended about a dozen sessions, asking questions or contributing comments during quite a few.

And I entertained perhaps the smartest crowd I’ve ever played with 45 minutes of science humor at my own surprisingly well-attended session, Saturday night after dinner (while, just down the hall, Martin Rees and Nick Bostrom led a somber discussion called “Existential Risks & Global Catastrophic Risks.”)

There was something for everyone.

In the end, there were some people – like Jim Hardy and Chris Patil and Brian Cox and his wife Gia Milinovich and John Gilbey and Nick Bostrom and David Bauer and Lars Jeppesen and Simon Quellen Field – with whom I had multiple chances to chat. And, yet, there are scores of people I never met. I had no idea (until I was back home in San Francisco) that there were four Nobel Laureates among us; I met only one. On the final day there were some faces that didn’t even look familiar to me… had they really been here all weekend?

[more to come]

Symmetry Breaking Reviews Rational Comedy for an Irrational Planet

I’ve been writing up my notes from Science Foo Camp, anxious to get something online about the unconference that ended a week ago already, and from which I’m still on a serious high.  Meanwhile…

symmetry breaking has a new review of my “Rational Comedy for an Irrational Planet” show.

symmetry breaking is a blog supplement to symmetry – a great particle physics magazine that explores not only the science but also the people, the culture, and the policies of science.

It’s published every other month by the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center – national laboratories funded by the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy – and, therefore, the magazine is available for free – in print as well as online – to anyone.  Subscribe here.

The review is written by David Harris, editor of symmetry, who attended my show at the Punch Line Comedy Club, here in SF, last Monday, August 11, immediately following SciFoo weekend.

He also invited me to write an essay on being a science comedian for the print version of the magazine.

Thanks, David!

Science Foo Camp 2008: Chapter 0

This is a helluva week. I’ve been promoting and preparing for my upcoming science comedy show at the San Francisco Punch Line: Rational Comedy for an Irrational Planet, Monday, August 11, 8pm, please come.

But between now and Monday I have what promises to be one of the most memorable weekends of my life…

Friday through Sunday, I’ll be attending Science Foo Camp 2008 (“SciFoo”).

What is SciFoo, you ask?

Well, it’s an invitation-only gathering organized by Nature, O’Reilly Media, and Google, and hosted at the famed Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.

It’s a weekend of interactive sessions. All delegates are also presenters. There’s no agenda until we get there and then it is determined collaboratively and subject to change throughout the weekend.

And who was invited?

Read the rest of this entry »