Science at Burning Man: Say What?

Burning Man… what a controversial topic these days. The annual festival received quite a bit of media attention this year, with a particular emphasis on how the ‘tech elite’ do burning man. Now that we are no longer in the early September Black Rock City news deluge I wanted to forever out myself as a raging hippie and describe why I keep going back to the festival: for the science of course!

This is a view of my camp, the Phage, as viewed from the main street in Black Rock City.

This is a view of my camp, the Phage, as viewed from the main street in Black Rock City. I have no idea why the CH-47 is doing a flyover… everything else is completely standard for Burning Man. Notice the 3 million Volt Tesla coil which my roommates built.

I suspect that at this point, this motivation may seem counter-intuitive or even implausible, but let me elaborate. First, we should start with a question: what is Burning Man? Answer: this question is impossible to answer. The difficulty of answering this question is why I’m writing this post. Most people oversimplify and describe the event as a ‘bunch of hippies doing drugs in the desert’ or as ‘a music festival with a dash of art’ or as ‘my favorite time of the year’ and on and on. There are nuggets of truth in all of these answers but none of them convey the diversity of the event. With upwards of 65,000 people gathered for a week, my friends and I like to describe it as a “choose your own adventure” sort of experience. I choose science.

My goal for this post is to give you a sense of the sciency activities which take place in my camp. Coupling this with the fact that science is a tiny subset of the Burning Man ethos, you should come away convinced that there’s much more to the festival than just ‘a bunch of hippies doing drugs in the desert and listening to music.’

I camp with The Phage, as in bacteriophage, the incredibly abundant virus which afflicts bacteria. There are about 200 people in our camp, most of whom are scientists, with a median age of over 30. Only about 100 people camp with the Phage in any given year. The camp also houses some hackers, entrepreneurs and artists but scientific passion is unequivocally our unifying trait. Some of the things we assembled this year include:

3 million Volt musical Tesla coil at night and during assembly

Dr. F and Dr. B’s 3 million Volt musical Tesla coil. Humans were inserted for scale.

Musical Tesla coil: two of my roommates built a 3 million Volt musical Tesla coil. Think about this… it’s insane. The project started while they were writing their Caltech PhD theses (EE and Applied Physics) and in my opinion, the Tesla coil’s scale is a testament to the power of procrastination! Thankfully, they both finished their PhDs. After doing so, they spent the months between their defenses and Burning Man building the coil in earnest. Not only was the coil massive–with the entire structure standing well over 20 feet tall–but it was connected through MIDI to a keyboard. Sound is just pressure waves moving through air, and lightning moves lots of air, so this was one of the loudest platforms on the playa. I manned the coil one evening and one professional musician told me it was “by far the coolest instrument he has ever played.” Take a brief break from reading this and watch this video!

Dr. Brainlove

Dr. Brainlove getting ready for a midnight stroll and then getting a brainlift.

Dr. Brainlove: we built a colossal climbable “art car” in the shape of a brain which was covered in LEDs and controlled from a wireless EEG device. Our previous art car (Dr. Strangelove) died at the 2013 festival, so last winter our community rallied and ‘brainstormed’ the theme for this vehicle. After settling on a neuroscience theme, one of my campmates in Berkeley scanned her brain and sent a CAD file to Arcology Now in Austin, TX who created an anatomically correct steel frame. We procured a yellow school bus which had been converted to bio diesel. We raised over $30k (there were donations beyond indiegogo.) About 20 of my campmates volunteered their weekends to work at the Nimby in Oakland: hacking apart the bus, building additional structures, covering the bus with LEDs, installing a sound system, etc. One of the finishing touches was that one of my campmates who is a neurosurgeon at UCSD procured some wireless EEG devices and then he and some friends wrote software to control Dr. Brainlove’s LEDs–thus displaying someone’s live brain activity on a 30′ long by 20′ tall climbable musical art car for the entire playa to see! We already have plans to increase the LED density and therefore put on a more impressive interactive neural light show next year.

Sugarcubes: in 2013, some campmates built an epic LED sculpture dubbed “the sugarcubes”. Just watch this video and you’ll be blown away. The cubes weren’t close to operational when they arrived so there was 48 hours of hacking madness by Dan Kaminsky, Alexander Green and many brilliant others before our “Tuesday night” party. The ethos is similar to the Caltech undergrad’s party culture–the fun is in the building–don’t tell my friends but I slept through the actual party.

Ask a scientist on the left. Science class on the right. Science everywhere!

Ask a scientist on the left (I’m in there somewhere and so is one of my current roommates– another Caltech PhD ’13.) Science class on the right. Science everywhere!

Ask a scientist: there’s no question that this is my favorite on playa activity. This photo doesn’t do the act justice. Imagine a rotating cast of 7-8 phagelings braving dust storms and donning lab coats all FOR SCIENCE! The diversity of questions is incredible and I always learn a tremendous amount (evidenced by losing my voice three years running.) For example, this year, a senior executive at Autodesk approached and asked me a trick question related to the Sun’s magnetic field. Fear not–I was prepared! This has happened before.. and he was wearing a “space” t-shirt so my guard was up. A nuclear physicist from UCLA asked me to explain Bell test experiments (and he didn’t even know my background.) Someone asked how swamp coolers work? To be honest, I didn’t have a clear answer off the top of my head so I called over one of my friends (who was one of the earliest pioneers of optogenetics) and he nailed it immediately. Not having a clear answer to this question was particularly embarrassing because I’ve spent most of the past year thinking about something akin to quantum thermodynamics… if you can call black hole physics and holographic entanglement that.

Make/hack sessions: I didn’t participate in any of these this year but some of my campmates teach soldering/microscopy/LED programming/etc classes straight out of our camp. See photo above.

EEG and LED hacking.

Science talks: we had 4-5 science talks in a carpeted 40ft geodesic dome every evening. This is pretty self explanatory and by this point in my post, the Phage may have enough credibility that you’d believe the caliber is exceptional.

Impromptu conversations: this is another indescribable aspect. I’ll risk undermining the beauty of these conversations by using a cheap word: the ‘networking’ at Burning Man is unrivaled. I don’t mean in the for-dollar-profit sense, I mean in the intellectual and social sense. For example, one of my campmates’ brother is a string theory postdoc at Stanford. He came by our camp one evening, we were introduced, and then we met up again in the default world when I visited Stanford the following week. Burning Man is the type of place where you’ll start talking about MPEG/EFF/optogenetics/companyX/etc and then someone will say: “you know that the inventor/spokesperson/pioneer/founder/etc is at the next table over right?”

Yup, Burning Man is just a bunch of hippies doing drugs in the desert. You shouldn’t come. You definitely wouldn’t enjoy it. No fun is had and no ideas are shared. Or in other words, Burning Man: where exceptionally capable people prepare themselves for the zombie apocalypse.

Check out my friend Peretz Partensky’s Flickr feed if you want to see more photos (and credit goes to him for the photos in this post.)

2017-01-13T10:05:39+00:00 October 15th, 2014|Uncategorized|8 Comments


  1. jim hammer (mr. science) October 16, 2014 at 3:39 pm - Reply

    hey… i think some of us came by on the playa, and we certainly listened to the Coil from the top of our bus… we’re the Academy of Arts and Sciences on the playa, but we are sort of wannabe wankers compared to y’all, as none of us are actual working scientists (i work as an aerospace engineer but dabble in art and science). we loved the coil… maybe we should collaborate. i have a 2 person recumbent trike i built for the playa which needs a tesla coil on it… i’ll bring it by if you’re on playa next year. thanks for your incredible efforts.

  2. jim hammer (mr. science) October 16, 2014 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    oh, and we have had triple pendulums with lasers the last 2 years, which project on some glow in the dark vinyl to demonstrate the evolution of chaotic behavior in the pendulums.

    • shaunmaguire October 18, 2014 at 8:34 am - Reply

      yes, I saw that project! The dynamical systems theorist in me lit up with joy! Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  3. burnersxxx October 17, 2014 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man and commented:
    “Burning Man: where exceptionally capable people prepare themselves for the zombie apocalypse” …maybe that’s what the Chinook’s there for

    • shaunmaguire October 18, 2014 at 8:32 am - Reply

      Awesome! Thanks! My sister’s boyfriend reached out to me last night and told me he saw it there… small world!

      And great point about the CH-47, yes, where else could the US Army do zombie apocalypse drills?

      • burnersxxx October 18, 2014 at 9:15 am - Reply

        Every year there are military fly-overs of various sorts. I’ve seen Chinooks, Blackhawks, F-22’s, C-130’s. BRC is about 100 miles from Naval Air Station Fallon. It is a former military site, a naval bombing range.

        “Home to the Fighting Saints of VFC-13, the Desert Outlaws of Strike Fighter Wing Pacific. and the Naval Strike Air Warfare Center, NAS Fallon serves as the Navy’s premier tactical air warfare training center.

        “Train the way you fight; fight the way you train.”

        Known throughout the Navy as the only facility in existence where an entire carrier air wing can conduct comprehensive training while integrating every element of the wing into realistic battle scenarios. Fallon enjoys more than 300 clear flying days per year and gets the most out of each of those days with its four bombing ranges, the electronic warfare range and all of its other excellent training facilities. The 14,000-foot runway remains the longest in the Navy, making Fallon a one-stop training facility unequaled throughout the service.”

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