Where better to celebrate and debate the importance of “big science” than Silicon Valley, the world’s innovation hub? The Atlantic tackled this on October 30th at a provocative San Jose gathering of the country's top science and tech experts. Giants in space exploration, renowned roboticists, autonomous car developers and the cloud architect who designed Zynga’s many gaming communities joined writers from The Atlantic, the BBC, and Fast Company for a day-long discussion of the power of science to inspire, the future of investment in science, and what we can expect such investment to yield. A 200-strong audience of Silicon Valley start-up founders, research lab scientists, university students and professors, and industry titans from Cisco and Intel listened as program speakers explored the biggest ideas and most interesting innovations in science and technology today.
Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic’s Tech Channel editor, launched the day with a moving interview featuring Dr. Charles Elachi, the chief of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, whose leadership of the recent Mars Rover landing capped a three-decade-long career at NASA and Cal Tech by breaking new frontiers.
Deep space exploration segued into a discussion of the promise of commercial space flight with Virgin Galactic’s Vice President for Special Projects, Will Pomerantz, who debated the future of space enterprise with Naveen Jain, founder of Moon Express, and Fiona Harrison, a black hole and deep space expert from Caltech. Next up was Dr. Jon Tracy, Chief Technology Officer for program underwriter Boeing, who shared a career’s worth of insights into scientific discovery. Who knew that microscopic filaments are behind the new technologies revolutionizing air travel?
Scientific discoveries revolutionizing the human experience were next on the agenda. First came the body, as a wheelchair-bound man walked across the stage with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton. Next came the mind as two top roboticists debated the relative merits of humanoids versus androids.
A symposium on Big Science can’t exclude energy, and the head of the Nuclear Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Ed Moses, did not disappoint, promising that researchers will soon harness the power of fusion. MacArthur Genius Yoky Matsuoka, now chief technologist at the hot smart thermostat start-up Nest Technologies, followed up with a historical overview of the benefits of smart energy technology.
There was something for everyone at “Big Science”: BBC Future columnist Jon Stewart interviewed Microsoft Chief Researcher Rick Rashid, who argued that near-term problem solving is just as important as far-off innovation. Three “networking giants,” including Zynga’s former CTO, Allan Leinwand, explored the future of the cloud, describing how cloud architecture is poised to transform air traffic control, car design, and other sectors. And for the gearheads in the crowd, Standford’s Director of the Center for Automotive Research Chris Gerdes offered a deeper dive, revealing his team’s breakthrough work on autonomous cars, which included an optional on-site tour of a Stanford self-driving vehicle.
Big Science is nothing if not tactile, so exhibits were a staple of the day. A “paleofuturist” exhibit on the way that past generations have envisioned future technologies, curated by BBC’s Matt Novack, complemented science covers from The Atlantic dating back to 1902, like our feature on the “Freedom of the Skies.”
An enthusiastic virtual community of students joined The Atlantic from nearly a dozen universities nationwide, including Northwestern University, Virginia Tech, and MIT. Reaching the next generation of innovators and scientists was a major goal for the event, so hosting campus “watch parties” of the event live stream was an exciting development. It was a day spent exploring the “figments of scientists’ imaginations,” as one of our speakers put it, and in the words of a tweet from one of our virtual viewers, the audience left “very impressed!”
Watch archive video footage of the program below.