Everything should be code

An idea that rocked my world at SciBarCamp was the understanding that everything should be expressed as code.

This realization was the outcome of two sessions. In one session, Andrew Hessel gave a fantastic talk about synthetic biology, i.e., the direct synthesis of biological organisms, by coding their DNA. One of many fascinating things about the talk was the point of view, which wasn’t so much that of a biologist, as that of a computer programmer. A nice example of this point of view is provided by the BioBricks Foundation:

Using BioBrickâ„¢ standard biological parts, a synthetic biologist or biological engineer can already, to some extent, program living organisms in the same way a computer scientist can program a computer. The DNA sequence information and other characteristics of BioBrickâ„¢ standard biological parts are made available to the public free of charge currently via MIT’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

In another session, Mark Tovey spoke about open source objects (I don’t remember Mark’s exact terminology), and pointed out that using suitable fabrication technology it becomes possible to express objects as code.

In both cases, expressing something we don’t ordinarily think of as code means that all the social and technical processes of software development can be applied. In the ordinary way of thinking it doesn’t make sense to take the “diff” of two objects, and version control (with merging!) would be cumbersome at best. By expressing objects as code, these and many other operations become trivial. Libraries, APIs, and high-level domain specific languages can be built. Widespread distributed collaboration becomes possible. The open source process can be applied. A creative commons can be constructed.

This circle of ideas gives rise to many wonderful questions. What are the right sorts of abstraction when you’re expressing objects as code? Biology? Movies? Music? What sorts of libraries might we build? What’s the lisp of biology? The LAMP stack for music?

Attentional philanthropy

One of the pleasures of SciBarCamp was several fun conversations with Mark Tovey. Mark is the editor for Worldchanging Canada. I asked Mark what Worldchanging does, and he explained it by saying that they are in the business of attentional philanthropy.

Attentional philanthrophy is very cool. What it means is that Worldchanging has built a (very big) audience at their website, and they then donate that audience’s attention to good causes; the trick in the writing is ensuring that readers find those causes interesting. I’m reminded of the avalanche of attention kiva.org (check them out!) got when Bill Clinton mentioned them on Oprah; with that one mention, Clinton and Oprah redirected millions of dollars to kiva.org. I’m obviously not in the league of Clinton-Oprah (or Worldchanging), but attentional philanthropy is something I plan to practice more consciously whenever I have the opportunity.

SciBarCamp: opening night

The SciBarCamp opening night was a place of awesome creative chaos. We decided today’s program, which starts off with sessions organized by Corie Lok, on Science 2.0, then Daniel Gottesman (“Quantum mechanics for ten year olds”), Jim Thomas and Andrew Hessel (“Synthetic Biology”), “Eva Amsen (“10 Things Everyone Should Know About Science”), plus loads more – the Saturday program is here. Should be fantastic.

Categorized as SciBarCamp

More things everyone should know about science

Chad Orzel has a great response to Eva’s question for SciBarCamp, “What are the ten things everyone should know about science?”:

I have three suggestions, which are really all part of one big idea:

1) Science is a Process, Not a Collection of Facts The essence of science, broadly defined, is that it is a systematic approach to figuring out how the world works:

1. look at the world around you

2. come up with an idea for why it might work that way.

3. test your idea against reality.

… making sure you do everything in your power to prove your idea in 2 wrong. When it’s your own ideas you’re testing, the easiest person in the world to fool is yourself.

(I know Chad didn’t intend this as a complete description, and I feel like I’m being pedantic with my addition. I’m on a bit of a kick right now thinking about how biases, especially confirmation bias, affect our view of the world, and how important skepticism is to the conduct of science.)

4. tell everybody you know the results of the test.

Put those steps together, over and over, and you have the best method ever devised for increasing our store of reliable knowledge. The precise facts found by this method are not as important as the process for finding them– given the process, and enough time, you can reconstruct whatever facts you need. The facts without the process are worse than useless, they’re dangerous.

2) Science is an essential human activity. You’ll often hear people who study art and literature wax rhapsodic about how the arts are the core of what makes us human– Harold Bloom attributes it all to Shakespeare, but you can find similar arguments for every field of art. Great paintings, famous sculptures, great works of music (classical only, mind– none of that noise you kids listen to)– all of these are held to capture the essence of humanity.

You don’t hear that said about science, but you should. Science is essential to our nature, because at its most basic, science consists of looking at the world and saying “Huh. I wonder why that happened?” Science is applied curiosity, and there’s no more human quality than that. (“Bloody-mindedness” is a close second.)

(And, from a purely practical point of view, science and the products thereof are the reason why we have the free time to sit around making and appreciating works of art. Without science, we’d still be plains apes scavanging the kills of more efficient predators than us.)

3) Anyone can do science. Science doesn’t depend on race and it doesn’t depend on gender. You don’t need to be rich to do science. You don’t even need to be good at math.

And, I might add, you don’t need to be “smart”. Every 3 year old kid pretty much applies the scientific method as Chad describes (well, they don’t usually publish). Scientists are just a lot more systematic and dedicated than most people. If there’s something that distinguishes them it’s that they appreciate the scientific method, and understand what goes wrong when you start to vary steps.

Science is, fundamentally, nothing more than a systematic approach to looking at the world around us and figuring out how it works. Money and mathematics are tools that can help with this process, but the core of the enterprise is nothing more than a habit of mind.

One of the most pernicious lies told by our culture is that science is an elite and exclusive activity only available to a few. It leads to scientists being stigmatized as “nerds” or “geeks,” set apart from the rest of humanity, and it leads to tenured professors with Ph.D.’s in the humanities to say with a laugh “I just don’t understand science.”

Science does not require innate abilities beyond the standard-issue human genome. If you have the full complement of senses and a brain, you can do science. In fact, the core business of humanities scholars– sifting through texts looking for evidence to support a particular argument– is not really any different than the business of science. You come up with a theory of what’s going on in a particular work of literature, and then you check to see whether that holds up by systematically evaluating the evidence found in the text. That’s one step removed from doing science.

You may not understand a particular set of facts produced by science, but see point #1 above: Science is a process, not a collection of facts. You won’t necessarily understand all the facts of a particular science outside your own field of expertise– I don’t understand microbiology worth a damn– but if you have the brain power necessary to function as an autonomous adult, the process is within your grasp.

And again, if you have the process, you have the ability to eventually understand the facts. I don’t understand microbiology, because I haven’t been trained in those facts, but I know that I could understand it, and if I ever need that understanding, I know the process by which to get it. For that matter, I don’t understand feminist literary criticism, but I know that I could if I needed to, using the same mental toolbox.


I’m really excited – in a couple of weeks I’ve got an opportunity to talk with and ask questions of an incredibly diverse and interesting group of 100+ people at SciBarCamp. So I’ve been thinking about what sorts of big picture questions I find most interesting, and trying to prime myself in preparation. I decided to write a few down, mostly outside the list of familiar standards – how did life begin, how did the Universe start, and so on. I’ve written the post with a view towards SciBarCamp, but of course I’m interested in hearing everyone’s thoughts! If you are coming to SciBarCamp, I’d also love to hear about some of the things you’d like to hear about at SciBarCamp.

What role can science play in public policy?

This question bugs the heck out of me, since loads of important public policy decisions are made without an appreciation of relevant scientific input. There’s a standard litany of solutions people offer to this problem – “more focus on science literacy”, “more outreach”, “educate the decision makers”, “run for office”, and so on. All these answers are worthwhile, but none seem to me to get to the core issue: either we need to find a system that works differently and better than democracy, or else we need to find some way of integrating science into the heart of the polity. I don’t know how to do either of these things, but I’d like to know what other people think about it.

What are the best ways to organize groups for collective creativity?

Kevin Kelly has a couple of mind-expanding stories about collective creativity:

In 1990 about 5,000 attendees at a computer graphics conference were asked to operate a computer flight simulator devised by Loren Carpenter. Each participant was connected into a network via a virtual joy stick. Each of the 5,000 copilots could move the plane’s up/down, left/right controls as they saw fit, but the equipment was rigged so that the jet responded to the average decisions of the swarm of 5,000 participants. The flight took place in a large auditorium, so there was lateral communication (shouting) among the 5,000 copilots as they attempted to steer the plane. Remarkably, 5,000 novices were able to land a jet with almost no direction or coordination from above. One came away, as I did, convinced of the remarkable power of distributed, decentralized, autonomous, dumb control.

About five years after the first show […] Carpenter returned to the same conference with an improved set of simulations, better audience input controls, and greater expectations. This time, instead of flying a jet, the challenge was to steer a submarine through a 3D under-sea world to capture some sea monster eggs. The same audience now had more choices, more dimensions, and more controls. The sub could go up/down, forward/back, open claws, close claws, and so on, with far more liberty than the jet had. When the audience first took command of the submarine, nothing happened. Audience members wiggled this control and that, shouted and counter-shouted instructions to one another, but nothing moved. Each person’s instructions were being canceled by another person’s orders. There was no cohesion. The sub didn’t budge.

Finally Loren Carpenter’s voice boomed from a loudspeaker in the back of the room. “Why don’t you guys go to the right?” he hollered. Click! Instantly the sub zipped of to the right. With emergent coordination the audience adjusted the details of sailing and smoothly set off in search of sea monster eggs.

Collective creativity is at the beginning of a long boom (look at Wikipedia go!), and it seems there are lots of new opportunities for collective creativity in science, the arts, and other areas. I’d love to hear good ideas about collective creativity at SciBarCamp, perhaps from a programmer like Reg Braithwaite, whose experiences seem to me to blend much of what it means to be creative in both science and art, or maybe from a Jazz musician like Isaac Ezer.

How is the web going to impact the process and institutions of science?

This is, of course, a question of great personal interest to me; I think we’re at the start of a major revolution in the processes and institutions of science. It seems like nearly all the participants are going to have interesting things to say about science and the web, including people like science blogger (and SciBarCamp co-conspirator) Eva Amsen, synthetic biologist (and promoter of open biology) Andrew Hessel, and Troy McConaghy, who does all sorts of amazing science-related stuff in Second Life.

I have about 50 other questions I’d like to add to my list, but if I do so this post will stop being a blog post, and will instead turn into a rather peculiar book, so perhaps I should stop there. One final question that I can’t resist because it’s so personally important for me: how do people manage their creative lives? This includes things like finding the discipline to do creative work, keeping the wolves of distraction and unfortunate obligation at bay, and managing all the information and decisions we seem to labour under. I’d sure like to hear other people’s experiences and ideas about all these things.

Categorized as SciBarCamp

How to run an unconference: 20 useful online resources

As part of helping out with SciBarCamp, I’ve been studying other people’s experiences with unconferences. This post is a collection of some of the more useful links I’ve found.

Categorized as SciBarCamp

Tagging SciBarCamp

I notice some people are using “SciBarCamp” as a blog category for blog posts about SciBarCamp. I’m going to start tagging my posts in the same way, and strongly encourage others to do the same, to make it easy to find all the relevant posts at Technorati:


I’m going to blog some of the things I’m particularly interested in hearing about, and I’d love it if other participants were to blog their ideas as well.

Categorized as SciBarCamp


Inspired by the wonderful SciFooCamp and BarCamps, I’m helping organize SciBarCamp, in Toronto, starting the evening of Friday, March 14, and continuing all day Saturday and Sunday, March 15 and 16.

The idea is to have a gathering of scientists, artists, and technologists for a weekend of talks and discussions. The goal is to create connections between science, entrepreneurs, arts and culture.

The themes are:

  • The edge of science (eg, synthetic biology, quantum gravity, cognitive science)
  • The edge of technology (eg, mobile web, ambient computing, nanotechnology, web 2.0)
  • Science 2.0 (eg open access, changing models of publication and collaboration)
  • Scientific literacy and public engagement (eg, one laptop per child project, policy and science, technology as legislation, science as culture, enfranchising the poor, the young, the old)
  • The interactions of science, art and culture: Scientists and artists as partners in the continuing evolution of the culture

The program will be decided by the participants at the beginning of the meeting, in the opening reception. Presentations and discussion topics can be proposed at the SciBarCamp website or on the opening night.

The talks will be informal and interactive; to encourage this, speakers who wish to give PowerPoint presentations will have ten minutes to present, while those without will have twenty minutes. Around half of the time will be dedicated to small group discussions on topics suggested by the participants. The social events and meals will make it easy to meet people from different fields and industries. The venue, Hart House, is a beautiful space in downtown Toronto, with plenty of informal areas to work or talk. There will be free wireless access throughout.

Our goals are:

  • Igniting new projects, collaborations, business opportunities, and further events.
  • Intellectual stimulation and good conversation.
  • Integrating science into Toronto’s cultural, entrepreneurial, and intellectual activites.
  • Protoyping a model that can be easily duplicated elsewhere.

Attendance is free, but there is only space for around 100 people, so please register by sending an email to Jen Dodd (dodd.jen@gmail.com) with your name and contact details. Please include a link to your blog or your organization’s webpage that we can display with your name on the participants list at www.SciBarCamp.org.

SciBarCamp is being organized by Eva Amsen, Jennifer Dodd, Jamie McQuay, Michael Nielsen, Karl Schroeder, and Lee Smolin. More information about the event can be found at www.SciBarCamp.org.

Categorized as SciBarCamp