Big Science Summit

October 30, 2012
San Jose, CA, California

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.

Presented by

Atlantic Live


  • Russ Angold
    Russ Angold Co-founder & Chief Technology Officer Ekso Bionics
  • Milton Chen
    Milton Chen Chief Executive Officer VSee
  • Steve Clemons
    Steve Clemons Editor-in-Chief, AtlanticLIVE, and Washington Editor-at-Large The Atlantic
  • Dr. Charles Elachi
    Dr. Charles Elachi Director, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, Caltech
  • Chris Gerdes
    Chris Gerdes Director Center for Automotive Research, Stanford
  • Dr. David Hanson
    Dr. David Hanson Chief Executive Officer Hanson Robotics
  • Fiona Harrison
    Fiona Harrison Principal Investigator NuSTAR, NASA
  • Naveen Jain
    Naveen Jain Co-founder and Chairman Moon Express
  • Wendy Ju
    Wendy Ju Researcher Stanford Human-Computer Interaction Group
  • Dr. Parimal Kopardekar
    Dr. Parimal Kopardekar Manager of NextGen Concepts and Technologies Development Project NASA Ames Research Center
  • Allan Leinwand
    Allan Leinwand Chief Technology Officer of Platform Development ServiceNow
  • Yoky Matsuoka
    Yoky Matsuoka Vice President of Technology Nest Labs
  • Andrew McAfee
    Andrew McAfee Principal Research Scientist, Center for Digital Business MIT Sloan School of Management
  • Edward Moses
    Edward Moses Principal Associate Director, NIF & Photon Science Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • Will Pomerantz
    Will Pomerantz Vice President for Special Projects Virgin Galactic
  • Rick Rashid
    Rick Rashid Chief Research Officer Microsoft
  • Jon Stewart
    Jon Stewart Technology Columnist BBC Future
  • Dr. John Tracy
    Dr. John Tracy Chief Technology Officer The Boeing Company
  • Jim Zemlin
    Jim Zemlin Executive Director Linux Foundation


Presenting Level

Supporting Level

Upcoming Events

  • Education

    Early Childhood Education: The San Antonio Experience

    The Atlantic will host Early Childhood Education: The San Antonio Experience, a Next America forum bringing together local and national leaders for a wide-ranging discussion about expanded access to full day pre-kindergarten in San Antonio and its national implications.

  • Technology

    City Makers Summit

    The Atlantic will explore how technological growth contributes to – or curtails – workforce development in dense urban areas. The day’s conversations will cover topics like job training and education, inequality and the rise of Dallas entrepreneurship and corporate innovation.

  • Health Care

    Resistance: The Antibiotics Challenge,
    An Atlantic Forum

    The Atlantic is presenting “Resistance: The Antibiotics Challenge,” a half-day forum bringing together key thought leaders for a wide-ranging discussion about antibiotic resistance and the public health ramifications of this consequential issue.