SXSW Science? The Interactive Conference Puts on a Lab Coat

This year’s SXSW Interactive keynotes didn’t headline 20-something social media entrepreneurs or garage tinkerers who’ve hit the big time or brilliantly polished C-suites sharing their vision of the future. The stars of the show this year were scientists.

The South by Southwest Interactive catalog is heavy, with hundreds of events packed into five days and 40 locations. Reading the schedule is like reading the rings of a tree -- layers upon layers of sessions, meet-ups and parties running in parallel. With so much going on, it’s impossible to get a grip on all the themes and territories covered at SXSW Interactive. Yet a few big themes pop up every year as pointing the planchette at what’s next.

Every year there are five keynotes that tend to reflect the diverse interests of the tech community. This year’s keynotes didn’t headline 20-something social media entrepreneurs or garage tinkerers who’ve hit the big time or brilliantly polished C-suites sharing their vision of the future. The stars of the show this year were scientists.

Or rather, those who have been able to tell stories about science in a way that has broken through to the rest of us. There were also dozens of sessions and meet-ups about science. Whether DNA sequencing or outer space, there’s an emphasis on exploring the future from a scientific POV this year.

I spoke with Karen Ingram, a SXSW Advisory Board Member who was instrumental in selecting science programming. "With the rapid advancements in all areas of the sciences, it’s important that we grow more scientifically literate. SXSW is the perfect assemblage of thinkers and doers that can help to communicate and further shape these ideas and advances."

Nas, also on the roster at SXSW to talk hip-hop and venture capital, crystallized the need for science as storytelling: “I’m here because as a kid I saw the movie Weird Science.”


The most coveted keynote was an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist showman from the American Museum of Natural History who’s made science into entertainment on television, his podcast StarTalk Radio Show, and on Twitter. Thousands lined up to see him speak and the crowd spilled over into other halls where SXSW projected the interviews. He now has a much larger audience -- the new series Cosmos premiered on Fox the day after his SXSW talk.

Science journalist Christie Nicholson interviewed Tyson about raising kids, the best molecules, and why understanding science is important. One of the preeminent translators of the universe for the rest of us, Tyson dropped tweet-worthy bombs like “Carbon. It’s a great molecule.” And for those who disagree with his dismissing of Pluto as a planet -- “All you nine-planet people out there, just get over it. It’s eight!”

His primary message, besides showing and telling about the wonders of the universe, was to maintain that wonder. “A scientist is just a kid who never grew up,” he said, while telling stories about his own kids, whom he lets break eggs to understand viscosity and consequences, and whom he encourages to question the existence of the tooth fairy.

NASA’s founding mandate in 1958 says it must use “the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof, and SXSW has been a big part of their strategy the last couple of years. It was out in force at SXSW, living this mission through six talks.

Through social media, NASA’s managed to give first person views to outer space -- encapsulating the wonders of space travel in the square screens of Instagram. They’ve ridden on social media popularity of the Superbowl with #Supernovasunday and Black Friday with “BlacknovaFriday", and played with awe but also with humor.

One of the highlights for me was Skyping with astronauts, run by the NASA social media manager John Yembrick. Three astronauts in anti-gravity back flipped and floated a mike back and forth, and answered questions from how they sleep, how they communicate with their family, and what they thought of the movie Gravity -- “It was pretty exciting! Our lives are not that exciting.”


Space is huge, obviously beyond the comprehension of mere mortals, and in a lot of ways its role at SXSW is to grow curiosity, to expand minds, and to push wonder. It’s also a frontier for start-ups like Space X, whose visionary founder Elon Musk spoke last year. As Tyson said, “You know the dinosaurs would have gone to space if they could have. Dinosaurs didn't have opposable thumbs or a space program, though." NASA is supporting this level of innovation. In an aptly titled “Are We Smarter than Dinosaurs", NASA discussed its Grand Challenge, a prize open to anyone to solve the big challenge of what to do if an asteroid hurtles towards earth.


We’re learning more about the universe within as well -- and how to own and manipulate it.

Keynote speaker and 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki spoke to a full room about how the rising costs and concerns about health care pushes our desire to understand -- and manage - our own interior world. Her company 23andMe lets anyone find their genome sequence by spitting in a vial and sending it to them. Once the genome is sequenced, plenty of information is at your fingertips -- ancestry, hereditary traits and diseases, and ongoing research.

There were various talks about the power of the brain and its malleability. This has been a popular SXSW topic in years past, but I was surprised that this didn’t take as much of the room on the schedule. Perhaps we’re moving past this conversation, as we tire of the pop psychology and behavioral economics books have told us how our brains trick us -- and how we can trick our brains.

Since we’re talking about control, we’re talking not just about stories but about tools. How do we make sense of the data, information and research, when even the health care industry can’t, or won’t? 23andMe is the most accessible format for the everyday person -- clean graphs and maps in poppy colors make understanding the genes that make us up easy.

The quantified self movement, where people collect and analyze their own data was out in full force. Plenty of sessions explored the topic of wearable. With the increase in wearable computing like Google Glass and the Samsung watch, the activity of measuring our activity is becoming more accessible and popularized. The Shine fitness tracker, showing its wares in the home of crowd funding platform IndieGoGO, bridges technology with fashion consciousness. MIT scientists presented fabric that senses mood and stress.

But what do we do with all this information? Big data is always a conversation topic for large companies. Companies like IBM have made it a central part of how they communicate with us consumers, using data in advertising for their Smarter Planet campaign. But for those individuals who track their personal data for health and wellness, the amount of data collected can also be daunting. So it becomes important to see and understand the data in simple ways. Health care professionals, techies, entrepreneurs and even marketers weighed in on implications of all this new data.


As Bill Nye the Science Guy told TechCrunch, “Technology start-ups and science are intimately related. All these start-ups are going to be based on technologies that depend on our discoveries in science.” The popular TV personality was in town to judge new technologies with the likes of Adam Samberg at an event sponsored by Quirky, a company that invites people to submit their product ideas and helps them manufacture and sell the ones that are popular with the crowd.

The entrepreneurial spirit at SXSW went beyond gadgets and apps. There were sessions about bio hacking, where DIY meets our bodies. Amateur scientists discussed their experiments outside the walls and rigors of academia -- which allows them more leeway to stretch imagination. Ingram, also an artist, worked with participants to build a unicorn out of bacteria. Bacteria were also used by UT Austin researchers to measure the strength of caffeine content in coffee.

The DIY movement and the growth of tech entrepreneurism intersect with the scientific mindset -- always asking, experimenting, and researching. There’s been a growing emphasis on STEM education (science technology engineering and math) as the silver bullet to fix our country. Health care reform has highlighted how inadequate our health care system has been, and more and more people have taken their health into their own hands through data collection, experimentation and alternative medicines. And the debates about climate change have highlighted the need for smarter scientific story telling and solutions. There’s no shortage of issues and areas for scientists, storytellers and creators to play nicely together and create our future.

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