I began Day 3 of Sci Foo Camp 2009—the last day—with a session organized by Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-PRIZE Foundation. Peter presented concepts for future X-PRIZEs and solicited feedback as well as suggestions for entirely new ideas.
Some of the ideas discussed included moving an asteroid off course (someone suggested crashing one into the moon; someone else suggested especially not crashing one into the Earth); dramatically increasing battery life; cloning of replacement organs; growing a lot more food on urban rooftops; successfully placing a mammal in—and reviving the same mammal from—suspended animation; resurrecting an extinct species (my vote would be be for the giant ground sloth); creating an autonomous automobile that can drive from New York City to Los Angeles in under four days while obeying all traffic laws; creating an Earth-to-orbit launch system that uses ground-based beam power; and the creation of a hypersonic intercontinental passenger vehicle (San Francisco to Paris in time for lunch anyone?), among many others. You can read more about future X-PRIZE ideas here.
Next up was a session I co-organized with Martin Fenner (Medizinische Hochschule Hannover) called, “Reengineering Scientific Publishing: Scientific Communication in the Future.” The session began with our premise that “publishing” is an artifact of a technology (the printing press) that is over 550 years old. “The journal” and “the book” (i.e., publishing) are solutions to the question, “What were the best ways to disseminate scientific information before computers and the Internet?” Electronic journals and books are merely simulacra of their print forerunners, essentially replacing a printing press with a desktop printer. What would the scientific communication system look like if we reinvented it from the ground up today using contemporary technology?
There was a good turnout for this session, including both publishers and research scientists. Scientists included John Prendry (Imperial College London), Robert Hoffman (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center), Mark Miller (Google), Andrew Lang (Oral Roberts University), Michael Rogan (PD Online Research), David Colquhoun (University College London and DC’s Improbably Science), Johan Bollen (Los Alamos National Laboratory), Robin Hanson (George Mason University, Future of Humanity Institute, and Overcoming Bias), and Victoria Stodden (MIT). Publishing sorts included Nicko Goncharoff (SureChem), Antony Williams (ChemSpider, Royal Society of Chemistry), and Bernd Pulverer (who is both a scientist and the editor of Nature Cell Biology).
There was general agreement that the most challenging aspect of reengineering the scientific communication system lies in reorienting the institutional reward system. At present the reward system is closely linked to publishing in well-regarded journals. We discussed the continued reliance on journal impact factor as contributing to maintenance of the status quo and the possibility of shifting to other metrics that would better accommodate alternative forms of communication. Johan presented some research he has done on this topic to the group.
Additionally, we discussed the role of peer-review in alternative publication formats, determining that peer-review could be included in one form or another in nearly any communication format so that was not in-and-of-itself an obstacle. We ended the session without reaching any conclusions but with agreement that change is needed.
The last session I attended at Sci Foo Camp 2009 was on colonization of Mars by Elon Musk. What makes Elon particularly suited to organizing a discussion on this topic is that he heads a rocket ship company (SpaceX).
The difficult thing about colonizing Mars is getting there. The biggest challenge in getting there is lifting heavy payloads out of the Earth’s atmosphere. While we have been able to do this since the 1960s using big rockets, the problem is that it is very expensive to build and launch big rockets (at least $300 million per launch), which are then immediately destroyed. A reusable Earth-to-orbit vehicle is needed to bring the cost down. One would think the space shuttle would be ideal for this sort of thing but the space shuttle actually costs more to operate and also can’t lift very heavy loads.
After placing a space ship into orbit (either all at once or by bringing up several large modules and then assembling a ship in space) one then has to travel to Mars, land, set up a habitat in which one can survive for several years, and travel back home. As challenging as it this all sounds, the technology exists today to make an expedition to Mars a reality. The cost for a Mars expedition would be at least a trillion dollars, which I used to think was a lot of money until the bailouts and stimulus package of the last year. While this cost is too prohibitive for individuals or businesses, spread over 10 years it is well within the realm of possibility for the federal government and NASA. Coincidentally, Buzz Aldrin (who was not, as far as I know, at Sci Foo Camp) has just written an op-ed piece in the Washington Post calling for precisely this endeavor.
After the last sessions concluded, we broke for lunch during which I discussed video game design with game developer Jenova Chen (thatgamecompany) and Paul Biondich (Indiana University and Open MRS). Jenova designed the innovative games flOw, Flower, and Cloud (which I recommend taking a look at if you have never played them). We also discussed using games as an experimental tool for sociological and psychological research.
After lunch came a wrap-up session in which “campers” were invited to provide a two minute overview of their session or describe the best ideas from any sessions they attended. Several dozen campers did so—suffice it to say, there was much that happened at Sci Foo Camp that I was not able to make it to. This post, along with those from Day 1 and Day 2, only provide my narrow perspective on the event along with, I hope, a general sense of what it was like to attend. It was a mind-expanding experience which I will be sifting through for some time.
Thanks to O’Reilly, Nature, and Google for organizing and hosting Sci Foo Camp 2009.