The Gonzo Scientist

A Summer Camp for Grown-Up Geeks

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Science  14 Sep 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5844, pp. 1495
DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5844.1495b

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This is the first in a series of reports on connections between science, culture, and the arts from ScienceContributing Correspondent John Bohannon, who, in true gonzo* style, will participate in the events he covers.

When I was 11 years old, I went to summer camp for geeks. It was my first time alone, away from home and family. By day, we learned how to program computers. By night, we fought epic shaving-cream wars, flirted, scarfed down pizza, set traps in bunk beds, and made friends for life.

So of course I agreed immediately when a friend of mine, the Canadian rocket scientist and bon vivant Jaymie Matthews, invited me to go back to camp this summer. I had heard of events like these. The most famous are the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado and the TED Conference in Monterey, California. But I was surprised to learn that grown-up geek camps are mushrooming across the summer landscape, and most of them focus on science and technology themes. The venues and programs vary—as do the often shocking prices of admission—but what they all have in common is summer-camp culture. The basic recipe is to gather a diverse group of talented people in one place for an extended period, provide plenty of intellectual and artistic resources, along with a strict regimen of relaxation and merrymaking, and let them run amok.

I was going to attend Canada's premier geek camp in Toronto, called IdeaCity. As if that weren't great enough—who doesn't love Canada?—I had the ultimate insider as a guide. Matthews has attended IdeaCity every summer since it started and is now an iconic fixture, something like a camp counsellor. But then it hit me: What do you get out of the ultimate growing-up experience when you're already grown up? What sort of grownups go back to summer camp anyway? And would there be a shaving-cream war? (Spoiler warning: Yes, there will be.)

Welcome to IdeaCity

When I arrived at IdeaCity, late and jetlagged, I wandered across the grass among campers who already seemed to have become best friends. They moved fast in twos and threes, grinning as if in the midst of elaborate pranks. Others huddled in tight circles of four and five. From one cluster, a woman in a red dress reacted to a joke, throwing her head back and laughing at the sky like a terrible god.

The IdeaCity venue is a theater building on the University of Victoria campus surrounded by lawns and gardens. It was set up as a sort of Xanadu for the middle-aged—and this is where we would spend most of our free time. Beneath the shade of an Aveda canopy on the lawn, men and women were getting dabbed with creams and massaged by professionals. A woman balancing herself against a stone pillar in the warrior position paused to pluck a herbal tea from the tray of a serving boy. Jaymie was nowhere to be seen. The only person I recognized was Miss Universe Canada, easily identified by her silk sash emblazoned with “Miss Universe Canada.”

To rescue me from my outsider status, a young and cheerful staff member welcomed me as one of the 2007 Idealists. (Every summer camp needs a cultish code name for its members.) I noticed that he was slurping from a fancy-looking coffee. Sensing my need, he pointed through the throngs. I body-checked my way to a kiosk where another jolly youth offered a dizzying array of caffeinated concoctions and pastries, all for free. (Starbucks is one of the event's many corporate sponsors.)

Before I could work up the courage to introduce myself to my fellow campers, unseen speakers boomed with brass. It was the opening bars of Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man, which, as I later learned, is the camp signal to gather. So with orange mochachino froth blistering my knuckles, I joined my 500 fellow Idealists as we stampeded into the theater's gloom.

Big Ideas in 20 Minutes

Moments after finding myself a perch up in the nosebleed seats, the lights went down and without pomp or pause, onto the stage ambled Moses Znaimer, IdeaCity's founder and master of ceremonies. In a summery white suit, the 65-year-old Znaimer looked like a million bucks. And I'm not saying that just because the Canadian media tycoon actually is a millionaire.

Znaimer launched IdeaCity in 2000. His model was the TED conference, which began in 1984 and gets the name from its original focus on technology, entertainment, and design. In the 1990s, TED expanded its themes and became the ultimate geek camp, attended by the likes of Al Gore and Executive Director Larry Brilliant. IdeaCity began as an official TED offshoot, but Znaimer declared independence in 2001 and branded it as a “distinctly Canadian” event. I'm still working out what that means, beyond the obvious fact that most of the participants are Canadian. (Then again, I'm not Canadian.) The Toronto gathering does seem to be a bit more low-key, which is, to my mind at least, a distinctly Canadian virtue. For example, TED is invitation-only, but anyone can become an Idealist. And while TED is billed as “a group of remarkable people that gather to exchange ideas of incalculable value,” the IdeaCity motto is slightly less dripping with hubris: “Ideas change the world.”

Additional Feature: Audio Slideshow

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John Bohannon narrates a presentation of sights and sounds from IdeaCity. (Flash 8)

That said, there was similar star power here among the campers. Znaimer introduced one of them now, theoretical physicist Anthony Leggett (Nobel 2003), who climbed onstage to tell us something about quantum mechanics.

And this is where we part ways from the egalitarian summer camps of yore. Like the rest of the grown-up geek camps, IdeaCity has a rigid class system: those who speak, and those who pay. The list of 50 speakers reads like a Who's Who of science, technology, and the arts. As I flipped through the program, I scribbled little stars next to names: David Schurig, the Duke University physicist who co-invented an invisibility cloak last year (published online in Science 18 October 2006); John Polanyi, Nobel laureate and chemical kinetics pioneer; Frans de Waal, the Emory University ethologist who is uncovering the biological roots of morality; étienne Baulieu, inventor of RU-486. (Next to Brian Schuster, CEO of—an online universe similar to Second Life but with cybersex and virtual drugs—I darkened an exclamation mark.) These Idealists come for free. But for the hoi polloi, it's about $3000 for the 3 days, and the price for next summer just went up to $3500. Luckily, it's free for hacks like me.

Leggett seemed nervous and certainly awkward. He is a Brit based at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, famed for his work on superfluidity, a quirky, frictionless phase of very cold matter. It didn't help that his first slide was greeted by a few unintended snorts and guffaws from this lay audience. His diagram of a quantum information experiment bristled with formal logic. This turned out to be the easiest of his slides. Perhaps half a dozen people in the audience could follow his talk.

But lest we judge him too harshly, consider Leggett's task. He was given 20 minutes to say anything he wanted to, with the only guidance being that “canned talks” are forbidden and that he should focus on something he is “truly passionate about.” That may sound straightforward, but for many people this is scary stuff, bringing on flashbacks of those esoteric essay questions from college applications. (In 1500 words or less, expound on the word “freedom.”)

The dozen speakers who followed him on this first day had more success translating their passions into earthly language. Some took us along for stream-of-consciousness rambles through their many interests. Polanyi, for example, wove together insights from his research in nanotechnology with musings on art history and nuclear disarmament. (Imagine a postprandial chat with your ingenious grandfather, plus slide show.)

But the majority kept their 20 minutes focused on what they knew best. My favorite came soon after Leggett, a talk by the sociologist John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia. Helliwell is working on the global map of happiness that you've probably read about on one Internet news source or another. (Take-home message: Life in Scandinavia rocks. Central Africa: not so much.) It's not just that Helliwell rendered the study's methods easy to understand, which is impressive considering the statistical ninjitsu required to compare happiness across different cultures.

More than half of the Idealists are CEOs or founders of their own companies. So after Helliwell got the basic science across, he translated one of the major findings into relevant advice: Promoting trust and friendship among employees is a sound investment. The quality of those social ties explains far more of the variation in people's happiness (and hence productivity) than their income does. On top of that, he got the audience to sing “If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands.” Not bad.

With people still buzzing from Helliwell's performance, Znaimer reappeared and rang the bell for the break. As the lights came up and the orderly array of people began to scramble below, I saw my friend Jaymie wearing a designer shirt reminiscent of a stained glass window exploding against a silk wall. He was easy to spot.

Astrophysics Meets the Marimba

What is the appeal of summer camp for grownups? After tagging along with Jaymie Matthews during a 45-minute coffee break, I felt close to tracking down its vital essence. Consider the following scene.

Interior—an emptying theater. Having waved at each other from across the wings, Matthews converges in the aisle with an ecologist, a medical-marijuana activist, and a comedian. Some of them haven't seen each other since IdeaCity 2006, so there is a brief hugfest. Matthews horrifies them with a fake nose that he picked up at a novelty shop. (When squeezed, it drips syrup from the nostrils onto his wriggling tongue.) But there's no time to dally because he is on a scientific mission, so he bids them au revoir.

Interior—a crowded foyer. “I have an idea,” says Matthews, wading upstream. “We're creating a spacecraft-design course at UBC.” (That's the University of British Columbia over in Vancouver, where Matthews, 48, is an astronomy professor.) “My idea is a national university contest to design and build a satellite from off-the-shelf components. The satellite should cost a few thousand dollars, and the launch will hopefully be free because it would be a small secondary payload. Who's gonna turn down a bunch of Canadian university hitchhikers?” Matthews waves a fistful of brochures. “If there are people interested in sponsoring and funding this, they're probably here,” he says. “Now I have to figure out where I can put these without violating the intense IdeaCity security.”

The idea sounds fanciful, but Matthews may be the world's most successful shoestring astronomer. He led the team that built Canada's suitcase-sized space telescope, called MOST—unofficially known as the “Humble space telescope.” By recording the ebb and flow of stellar radiation over long periods of time out in space, MOST plumbs the inner workings of stars and detects new planets far more efficiently than a giant ground-based telescope can. Matthews traveled to Russia in 2002 armed with little more than a smile, a sexy scientific idea, and, he claims, “the ability to drink any Russian under the table.” Within a couple of weeks, he secured a spot on a decommissioned ballistic missile to launch MOST. The satellite's $10 million price tag is roughly one-twentieth the budget for similar projects, and it has already surpassed its expected life span by 3 years. For this and other achievements, Matthews was given the Order of Canada last year, the Canadian equivalent of a knighthood.

Interior—an atrium flanked by tables of gourmet appetizers. Znaimer and an assistant are hovering near the theater entrance. Matthews walks up and is warmly greeted. He gives a 15-second summary of his satellite contest and receives a blessing to place his brochures upstairs near the IdeaCity bookstore.

“Wow, those look good,” says Matthews while on the way, swooping by a table to grab an avocado-caviar mousse. A pair of young women have had the same idea. “Bonjour to you both,” he says with a small bow. One is Anne-Julie Caron, a world-renowned player of the marimba based in Quebec. Matthews met her earlier today after she gave a performance. She introduces her friend Naomi, a violinist. This is the first time at IdeaCity for both of them. “It has been amazing, truly inspiring,” says Caron. In answer to what she has liked best, she replies, “I usually find scientists too intimidating to talk to. But it's so different here.”

Caron proposes that scientists and musicians should collaborate more often. “Absolutely,” says Matthews. “There are social barriers keeping both of us away from each other's profession. Scientists are criticized for spending too much time in the arts and probably vice versa. But when I listen to you play, it gives me ideas. At one point, were you vibrating the marimba keys by letting the mallets bounce with their own weight?” Caron smiles. “Because that's a perfect illustration of a similar phenomenon with stars. I could show this to students with a graph or simulation, but they're going to pay a lot more attention if I start a lecture on nonradial pulsation and evanescence of pressure modes by playing a clip of you playing the marimba.”

“It works the other way,” says Caron. “You might not think it, but holding these ideas in my head changes the way that I play. Such as what I learned yesterday about the age of the universe.”

“I hope that composers will use the recordings we've made,” says Matthews, referring to the transposition of stellar pulsations into audible sound. “And the marimba would be one of the best instruments for this.”

Caron's friend Naomi regrets that she does not have her violin with her. “Well,” says Matthews, “my job is to visualize sounds from things that are happening light-years away across the depths of space. So believe me, if there's anyone who could imagine how great a violinist you are without having heard you, it would be me.” This causes an eruption of laughter.

“That is probably the best pickup line ever,” says Caron.

The Talent Show

But I also knew that Matthews's experiences were probably not universal. (His disposition is so sunny that he can have fun just about anywhere.) Prolonged immersion in a camp's intense social milieu generates more than just good feelings. It also tests people's tolerance and stokes their competitive spirits—and that can get nasty. IdeaCity must have a downside, and I was resolved to find it.

A hot spot for competitiveness is that classic summer-camp feature, the talent show. Even the finale at computer camp, where we demonstrated the fruits of our programming labors, was tinged with bitter rivalry. (“That Pascal alien hunter game totally sucked.”) And indeed, the talent here at IdeaCity was off the scales. I watched a guy turn himself into a human gyroscope, jumping into and out of an aluminum ring that he spun on stage like a giant coin, all in time to a hip-hop track. (That was Bradley Henderson of the Montreal acro-dance troupe 7 Fingers.) I listened to a woman turn a tuba into a polyphonic instrument. (That was Karen Bulmer, and the result sounds like a cross between a tuba, bongos, and a didgeridoo.) And the most flabbergasting performance was by 13-year-old jazz prodigy, Nikki Yanofsky. Natural laws seemed bent as she stood there on stage—all 5 feet of her—producing the big, soulful voice of an Ella Fitzgerald. During one number, sung completely in scat, I lost count of the number of people watching with their mouths hanging open in disbelief.

To get the straight dope on summer camp, I turned to Nikki for help. (As the only summer camper among us of normal summer-camp age, I expected her to be the most candid observer.)

When I asked if I could interview her, she fired back a “Sure!” right away. A man with a television camera mounted on his shoulder followed. (Nikki's every move at IdeaCity was being filmed for a documentary about her.) We sat on tall stools at a bar table, her jelly-sandaled feet dangling.

I asked her what she thought of her adult campmates. “I find that they're very, very elegant,” she said after thinking it over. “They just stand there, talking, and mingling and stuff. You know,” she said, “they're acting like adults.” Some of them seemed a bit bored to her. “But the people who are interested seem to be having fun because they're talking about very cool things.” Nikki had gone to a summer camp with kids her age for 5 years now, “and I'm never going back,” she said. “The girls in my bunk were mean to me.” Grown-up geek camp suited her better.

After she had skipped off with the cameraman trying to keep up, I thought back on my own camp experience. Suddenly sharp in my memory was another camper whom I loathed. I'll never forget that feeling, an electric jolt of terror and triumph as I squashed a handful of shaving cream in his face and ran for my life.

Is this then the hard-earned reward of being grown up? Have we finally learned how to have fun—to live in the moment—without arguing, ridiculing, and stomping on each other's most cherished floppy disks?

But just as I was warming to this idea, little did I know that I was only minutes away from witnessing the grown-up version of a shaving cream war. For the next session, Znaimer had assembled a battle royale of religion wonks. And stepping into the ring to defend the secular belt was none other than the dark prince of atheism himself, Richard Dawkins.

The God Rumble

Everyone loves a fight. There's something so basic about it, so biological. Age, cultural background, political beliefs—none of that matters. Like antelopes gathering to the lek, like it or not, we all have to watch. But while kids fight over the little things—candy, name-calling, attention—at least we adults focus on important issues.

For example, whose imaginary friend is more real? Now there's a question worth a fight and not just a few quick punches and some crying behind the school. What we want is professional wrestling. With Dawkins pitted against representatives of the major religions, that's what we were going to get. (And they would have looked fantastic in spandex.)

Dawkins stepped up first. The wily Oxford professor of the public understanding of science may be 66 years old, but he can handle himself. He's lean, fast on his feet, and he wears silky suits that are hard to grip. To warm us up, he mentioned that his book The God Delusion has sold over 1 million copies and then waited for some polite applause.

The list of scientists to take on organized religion is long and distinguished, so you'd think that every last move has been tried. A classic grapple goes like this: First, the sweep kick. (Unless you're trivially proposing that all religions but yours are false, then all you've got is the common denominator that a God exists.) Followed by the flying leg drop. (But if this is all you've got, how is that better than blind celebrity worship?) And then maybe the mandible claw if things get ugly. (There isn't even evidence that religion promotes altruism.) But rather than those crowd pleasers, Dawkins went straight for the sleeper hold. With a twist.

His opening was by the book, first maneuvering the fight onto his own terms. Scientific arguments will get you nowhere in a God rumble unless you can establish that science has something to say about religious matters. A long and circling minilecture on the anthropic principle did the job. Then, to get at the throat, a big flying leap. (Scientific laws as we understand them should apply to God.) And then came Dawkins's surprise squeeze on the carotids. (To have created Earth, let alone the universe, God must be a vastly more intelligent and complex being than we are. Our own excellence in design is already the vastly improbable result of natural selection. Ergo, by the laws of probability, God almost certainly doesn't exist.)

By the time Dawkins had droned to the end of his argument, his sleeper hold had worked on all of us. Few could remember whether it was even coherent to assign a probability to the existence of a supernatural being.

Islam was up next. Wearing muted colors, a head scarf, and a beatific smile, Ingrid Mattson didn't seem like the fighting type. She's a Canadian who converted to Islam, did a Ph.D. in religious studies, became the president of the Islamic Society of North America, and is now billed as a voice of moderation among Muslims. And true to her reputation, she tapped out with nary a struggle. Instead of taking Dawkins's bait, she fed us sound bites about Islam in the style of a bedtime story. Had this been on Wikipedia, it would have started with the caution that “the neutrality or factuality of this article may be compromised.” The message she seemed to be driving at was that everything bad you may have heard about Islam is your misunderstanding.

Perhaps in lieu of a speaker for any of the Far Eastern religions, a frighteningly fit lady got up and directed a mass yoga session that would have made Leni Riefenstahl envious. As 1000 arms reached for the ceiling, I heard more than a few grunts. It was good to limber up midfight.

Christianity's avatar took a surprising form. You may not have heard of the “punk rock preacher” Jay Bakker, but you probably know of his televangelist parents, Jim and Tammy Faye. It was a shock for me to see their son mount the stage. For one thing, we are only a year apart in age. While I was geeking out at computer camp, his parents were at the height of their power, fabulously wealthy, and permanent fixtures on the television. And just a year later, when puberty was wreaking havoc on both of us, a sex scandal, imprisonment for fraud, and a public divorce brought Jay's family down to earth in a burning wreck. And here he stood on the other end of that. (The other shocker was his appearance, with enough tattoos and piercings to get kicked out of a biker gang.)

If Bakker had been the last speaker, I think the audience would have called it a draw. He outmaneuvered Dawkins by humbly shrugging off the question of whether God exists. “I'm just a guy. All I can tell you is what I believe,” he said. And then he launched into a moving account of how he overcame alcoholism, became spiritual, and set up an impromptu church in a bar to sermonize for anyone who wanted to listen. Far from defending or glorifying organized religion, Bakker calls it “a false perception of holiness that focuses on law and kills the true message,” which he boils down to “Love each other.” How can you argue with that? But just as our eyes were drying, as well as our thirst for blood, a bearded man swaggered onto stage and the game was on.

In another life, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach must have been a stand-up comedian. He killed us. Knocking off one joke after the other, from religion and family to love and sex, he worked the crowd like a pro. Boteach has been developing his material for years, penning popular books like Kosher Sex and wooing the media as Michael Jackson's religious adviser and more recently as the host of his own quasi-reality television show, Shalom in the Home. But the gags were just to get our guard down.

We lapsed into stunned silence as the rabbi suddenly laid into Dawkins. In doing so, Boteach deployed a fighting style perfected by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the Canadian kilt-wearing wrestler. During Piper's legendary feuds with Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, he famously exclaimed, “Just when they think they got answers, I change the questions!” And that's just what the rabbi did.

The action was almost too fast to follow, but I've studied the footage closely. The rabbi's opening was actually a double attack, starting with a classic Piper eye poke. (Dawkins says that he has a problem with religion because it's not true. He lives in England where they have a queen, but he hasn't attacked the royal family. Is it true that some people are born more special than others?) Then, taking advantage of the momentary distraction created by this dubious statement, the rabbi followed with a savage foot stomp. (Dawkins is married, so presumably he believes in the institution of marriage. But is marriage a true institution? According to evolution, love is a trick played on the mind to ensure that you have sex and propagate the species. Dawkins says he doesn't believe in love. And most evolutionary biologists don't either.)

As if suddenly remembering that this was supposed to be entertainment, the rabbi slipped in another joke to keep things light. (There are a lot of men who think that monogamy is a type of wood.) It won him some giggles. But then came his showstopper, an inverted atomic drop. (Dawkins says that God is a delusion, and evolution is real. And yet he himself knows that it's still the theory of evolution. Scientists have not yet called it the fact of evolution. Not only do they continue to debate its most basic concepts, but the fossil record is vastly incomplete. And yet, he believes in evolution.)

Finally, like Rowdy Roddy gloating at the end of a rigged match, Boteach concluded with a homily. “The central message of religion is that what you become is all in your hands,” he told us somberly. “It is the exact opposite of the message of evolution, which is that you are an animal who cannot control his destiny.”

Of course, the real show is always afterward when the fight spills out of the ring. It was easy to find scientists grumbling over the rabbi's talk. “He doesn't really understand what a theory means,” fumed Lawrence Krauss. “There is no controversy!” Krauss is a cosmologist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He has been in the trenches defending evolutionary biology during the recent attacks on education by the religious right. “What was that nonsense about Dawkins and the queen?” asked Lisa Randall, a string theorist from Harvard. Krauss shook his head. “The other thing he said, which is highly offensive, is that if we evolved then we can't be moral beings. And that's just manifestly wrong because we did evolve and some of us, at least, are moral beings,” he said. “I wanted to punch him in the face!”

But due to a previous engagement, Dawkins wasn't around for the tag-team folding-chair melee. He had already made his getaway.

With the fight over, the campers moved on to other matters, like getting their hands moisturized over at the Aveda tent. I peeked at the program to see what was coming up. Space tourism. Eco-warriors. Senior sex. (That looked promising.) Robots. Pandemics. Belly dancing?

Belly Dancing and Idealism

There's something subtle and beautiful, even profound, about watching an astrophysicist belly dance. It's not that astrophysicists don't like to dance. Far from it. They dance at any occasion. I'd recently seen this very same rocket scientist do an impromptu striptease on a bar counter. All I'm saying is that they usually dance with more verve than grace. But with eyes closed and hands in the air in a sign of surrender, his torso and hips swerving in counterpoint, Jaymie Matthews seemed transported across space and time to an alien world of strange pleasures.

In fact, everyone had that look by now. It was the final day of IdeaCity, and many strangely pleasant things had come to pass. At this moment, one of the campers, a pedagogically gifted lady named Roula Said, was teaching everyone how to use belly dancing to be “powerful.”

And this is my major finding. The cross-disciplinary mix of people, the talks by leaders of science and industry, the outstanding performances (and mingling with the performers afterward), the parties—all of that is great. But it's not the well-oiled entertainment machine that keeps people coming back to IdeaCity year after year. (If it were, then this would be nothing more than a pleasant escape from real life.) What people raved about was a sense of community and—I say this with all due skepticism—shared values.

How should we live? That was the cheesy-but-genuine subtheme that ran through the entire event. It popped up in several wonderful off-script moments. My favorite example was in the middle of a presentation by Daniel Theobald, the inventor of a robot medic called BEAR that retrieves wounded soldiers from battle zones. One moment he was explaining the mechanisms that allow his robot to be both gentle and extremely powerful, and the next he was telling us about how his daughter sent the proceeds from her lemonade stand to victims of Hurricane Katrina. He choked back some tears, coughed, and apologized. After a pause, he got back to his talk. You could almost hear the hairs rising on people's arms.

It's a multidimensional problem, of course. For some, the most pressing question was how to help reduce poverty and suffering. For example, a Canadian artist-engineer named Bill Lishman described a low-cost ultralight plane he has invented to airlift humanitarian supplies to inaccessible, disaster-struck rural areas. For others it was how to make our Western lifestyles less ecologically disastrous. During an open-mic session, one woman described how IdeaCity 2006 had inspired her to quit her job and become director of the board of an orphanage for endangered animals.

IdeaCity isn't the most impressive of the grown-up geek camps on the do-good front. The TED conference, for example, puts its money where its mouth is, offering the campers with the best world-bettering ideas $100,000 each to help realize them. (Past winners include E. O. Wilson, Bill Clinton, and Bono.) But many Idealists told me that the real value lies in the small-scale interactions. “I go to these things because scientists get to mix it up with nonscientists,” says Lawrence Krauss. “I just find it humbling that the people in the audience are often far more interesting than us presenters. They're people from all walks of life, and it helps me to break down stereotypes.”

Take Miss Universe Canada, for example. I learned that she has a real name, Inga Skaya, and that she is a clever and thoroughly unintimidating—even goofy—sociology student. She also has a passion for biodiversity. I saw her furiously scribbling notes during the talk by Biruté Galdikas, a former student of Louis Leakey who is desperately trying to save the orangutan from extinction.

And this helped generate one of the most interesting real-world outcomes from IdeaCity. Inga and others are teaming up with Galdikas to preserve orangutan habitat by purchasing forested land from the Indonesian government. “This is the sort of thing I want to do with my year,” she told me. When I gave a puzzled look, she added, “my reigning year, as Miss Universe here.” I was surprised to learn that international beauty pageants are springboards for activism. But after this year, she turns back into a pumpkin.

So with Ms. Skaya's permission, I hereby introduce a new scientific unit: the milli-Inga. From Helen of Troy, researchers derived the milli-Helen, defined as the amount of beauty required to launch one ship. Henceforth, a milli-Inga shall be the amount of beauty required to save one orangutan. (To learn more, visit

IdeaCity ended as all summer camps do, with a sing-along. A Canadian comic duo called Bowser and Blue composed a theme song. The chorus goes like this:

IdeaCity is a place

Where ideas come face to face

And inspire and give us hope

At this time our planet needs it most.

That's the sort of cheesy riff that you would be embarrassed to sing in front of your friends back home. And yet there we all were, singing in unison. It must have been the cultish effects of summer camp. Or perhaps there are still some idealists among us.

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