What looks like a bleached octopus, sans tentacles, rests in my hand. White, flaccid and cold, the rubbery blob chills my gloved palm as the researcher describes her work: decellularizing organs to create scaffolds for recolonization by new cells, and possible future implantation.
I am holding a human heart.
The occasion is Science Foo Camp, hosted annually by O’Reilly Media, Inc., Nature, and Google. It’s an un-conference or an unconvention, take your pick. An invited group of scientists, techies, writers, philosophers and artists join for a few days of idea-exchange and oh, wow sessions.
Mind-stretching is a little exhausting, but a full-time barista froths cappuccinos under whimsical Googleplex structural swoops. We are surrounded by saturated colors and other eye candy: bicycles with green tires, red seats and yellow frames roll by. Leaf-green Adirondack chairs zone in on orange tables. A full-sized skeleton T-Rex replica crunches pink lawn flamingos in its toothy jaws. Intense discussions are taking place on boulder-like couches and around the wine bar and It’s It ice cream cart. Pop-up demos of 3-D mathematical puzzles tie participants in knots for fun and frustration. A working model Antikythera Mechanism (eclipse predictor) is built entirely from Legos. The decellularized human heart turns out to be a good ice-breaker, too. Shy nerds come out of their shells, get excited, and talk about their and each other’s work.
More formal sessions are stuck with post-its to schedule boards with titles like, “The Last 3 Minutes Before the Singularity” “Human-Powered Helicopters: Ornithopters and Really Fast Bikes (there’s an incredible video of this Sikorsky-Prize-winning flight)” “De-Extinction: Should We Bring Extinct Things Back to Life?” Conference rooms are named Neuralyzer, Space Elevator, Tricorder, and Flux. The session on “Why Should You Collaborate With Artists?” led by artist Charlotte Jarvis, is packed with scientists.
I feel very lucky to hang with these amazing people and hear about their work, chat with neurobiologists who study the science of aesthetics and attention. I have a cozy chat with an astrophysicist and president of a well-known planetarium who tells me about her citizen science programs, about how to demystify and make science accessible, how anyone can do it ( for starters, here’s how you can join in the fun). On the subject of drawing and field sketching, she admits not knowing how to draw, so I throw out a small challenge: anyone can learn drawing, too. Handing her a new sketchbook, the two of us sit on the ground and sketch Google’s landscape plantings: rudbeckia, salvias, grama grasses. An Anna’s hummingbird hovers three feet away, shoving its bill into a salvia bloom. I set the timer on my iPhone for one minute and we madly draw gesture sketches of trees and flowers. In minutes, she is drawing, but even better, the process is demystified. She sees as an artist for the first time.
Later we stand in the Holodeck, the surround-experience version of Google Earth. We hover over Copenhagen and dip into street view. Hanging onto the console keeps us from keeling over as destinations spin our way. The astrophysicist shows me her planetarium, a beautiful jewel at the edge of a great lake. Then we find the extra-terrestrial icons. Clicking “Moon” spins us outward again at a terrifying clip, into the starry black sky. A cruise over the craters shows us the gritty gray floor. Mars’s craters are crisp and the atmosphere at the horizon as orange as a smog-alert day in Burbank. The red planet rolls away under us and names pop up in white letters: Bay of Toil, Cape Verde, and the Valley Without Peril. We park a few hundred feet up, and I draw a little landscape sketch, my first plein-extraterrestrial-air artwork.
When we start showing each other our houses, that’s when we know it’s time to go. But what a journey.
Next stop: Copenhagen. Happy Tuesday.