March 17, 2008

SciBarCamp summary & impressions: Saturday

Getting up for a conference on a Saturday is always tough. When it's in you home city and you have to get somewhere downtown for 9am, well, that counts as cruel and unusual punishment. But, for SciBarCamp, it was well worth the pain and anguish. It was even worth the pain and anguish of dragging my 15-year-old son Sam out of bed and onto the Subway with me. Organizers Michael Nielson and Jen Dodd know that I have a teen aged son who's interested in science so they suggested I bring him along as a way of judging if this kind of even might be interesting to high schoolers. As it turned out, Sam had a great time, and even asked a few really great questions (it makes a Dad proud!). He was a bit tired and ready to leave by about 3.30, but he really enjoyed the experience.

So, on to Saturday! (Link to Participants list. It's also worth noting that sessions changed, combined, morphed during the conference, so if I've got participants wrong below, I apologize.)

Like I said in the previous post, the Saturday program was mailed to us during the night.

Corie Lok of Nature Network was scheduled to speak about Science 2.0 first thing on Saturday. As it happened, while Corie and I were talking on Friday night, she asked me if I wouldn't mind joining her up on the stage and helping moderate the discussion. Of course, I said yes. And it went extremely well, too. Corie and I only talked for about 5-8 minutes, with Corie setting the stage and me briefly mentioning some specific tools and trends. After that, in true unconference spirit, the rest of the 40 minute slot was filled with a lively discussion about the impact of these new tools on the practice of science. At first, we talked a bit about JoVE and then we drifted into talking about lab wikis and electronic lab notebooks.

There was only one programming track in the morning. The other items from the morning were Daniel Gottesman's mind expanding talk on quantum mechanics and computing which I think had a few people scratching their heads -- but in a good way. Thinking about hard stuff is good for our brains and this was certainly the hardest stuff of the weekend. That was followed by a provocative session by Andrew Hessel and Jim Thomas about the pros and cons of synthetic biology; lots of issues to think about, for sure. Eva Amsen next gave the first half of her two-part talk on "Ten Thinks Everyone Should Know about Science!" where she talked about what she hoped to accomplish with the project and invited everyone to make suggestions on a poster board during the rest of the day. She promised to come back and Sunday and talk again about the results.

Lunch was included in the conference; on Saturday is was sandwiches, coffee and juice and lots of opportunity to talk. During lunch, some EE students from UofT demoed their solar car outside.

The afternoon was a bit of a dog's breakfast. The scheduling broke down and the four function rooms quickly got out of phase. With a variety of session lengths (20 or 40 minutes) and no time alloted between sessions, the best plan was probably just to pick a room and stay in it! It's worth noting that this aspect was vastly better on Sunday as the organizers more strictly enforced sessions lengths.

In the afternoon, I caught only bits and pieces of a couple of the sessions so I'll only mention the ones I saw in their entirety. Diane Nalini and Lee Smolen talked about "Can Technology Make Us Happy?" and, not surprisingly, there was no consensus. Like some of the sessions, a lot of the discussion ranged around definition. What is "technology", what does "make" mean, what is "happy," and who are "us." Old vs. young, techie vs. luddite, these were some of the issues that came up.

Rob Sawyer took the opportunity of the conference to workshop some of the plot points in his upcoming trilogy on the WWW gaining consciousness to ask some questions of us, like what is consciousness? And how would we know if the web had it? Good discussion with, again, no firm outcome.

Diane Nalini's "Physics through Music" was a great session as she talked about some of the pedagogical tools she uses in her classes to teach physics using an extra sense -- hearing! Springs, software, singing, sine waves. Compelling stuff.

The last item on Saturday's agenda was deciding the program for Sunday. I ended up proposing a session on the Future of Libraries with Wendy Banks of the Toronto Public Library. But more on that tomorrow. It's worth noting that the fluid nature of the unconference format meant that I presented twice -- both times with people I had never met before the conference.

After all the sessions were done, we broke for dinner. I ended up at a Ethiopian restaurant with a bunch of people and then walking to the Duke of York with Mark Tovey. Another organizing glitch was that the 5pm ending didn't flow naturally into dinner or meeting up at the pub at 8pm.

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