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Burning Man Offers an Enchanting Escape


Spread across a scorched sand basin in the heart of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, 50,000 people are pitching tents, parking RVs, scrambling up giant statues, putting on Day-Glo fur costumes, dancing to techno and brewing coffee on Coleman stoves.

The sun rises over distant mountains.  Before the week is done, both a 100-foot statue of the iconic “man” and an elaborate temple will rise out of the sand and be consumed by explosions and flames.  Hedonism, serenity, beauty and chaos — all these await you.

As you step out onto the sand street by your camp, a 50-foot-long dragon rolls past, and the break-beat ambient bass is interrupted suddenly by a burst of flame shooting out of its nostrils.  The driver of the magical beast slows her down and beckons to you to climb up onto the dragon’s back. 

You pull yourself up into a party of friendly strangers, someone pours you a gin and tonic, and you’re whisked away into the enchanting dawn of your first day at Burning Man.

This is the famous Burning Man Festival, held every year on Labor Day weekend and the preceding week.  This year’s festival theme was “Cargo Cult,” with many of the art installations dealing with the deification of mundane objects. 

And for the third year in a row, the event was sold out. The population of Black Rock City, with its post office, two radio stations, a landing field, a health clinic and an ordered road grid, spiked this year to somewhere around 68,000.  

UCSF can claim many creative and energetic minds who participate annually in this surrealistic event, and this year was no exception.  As there is no official UCSF camp, it’s not possible to know how many members of the UCSF community were in attendance. 

One thing is certain, however: scientists and medical professionals are not out of place at Burning Man.  While it is famous for hippies and ravers, the Burner community hails as much from Cole Valley and Silicon Valley as it does from the art warehouses of West Oakland. 

For example, one large theme camp, Phage Camp, with a prominent location on Esplanade, the main street of Black Rock City, is known to have strong UCSF representation. 

While it offers its share of thumping electronica, the camp also offers daily lectures on scientific topics.  In 2010, I attended a talk on the concept of infinity and a mathematical proof of a number larger than infinity.  So it is that the spirit of absurdity and profundity, which pervades Burning Man as a whole, can also be applied to the realm of science, bringing science comfortably into the Burner fold. 

"My first few years were mostly observational, learning the mores and expectations of Black Rock City culture,” said UCSF grad student and long-time Burner, Stephen Naylor, describing the evolution of his participation.

“By the third year, I became fascinated with the process of how that culture comes into being, so my friends and I established [Cougar Melon] camp so we could be creators of BRC culture rather than just observers.”

Last year, based on everything he’d learned in previous years, Naylor returned to a more minimal setup. “Neither on the outside looking in for what to do, nor part of an establishment with a specific mission, I could now fully participate, knowing that my every choice was all part of the great experiment,” he said.

The scientist reflected further on the festival as a whole: “As an experimentalist, I’m drawn to Burning Man because it tears down a lot of assumptions about the way things are and creates fertile ground for experimenting with human interactions, societal patterns and what makes people happy,” he said. “Each time I go, I tend to focus on some aspect of myself and use the event as a giant lab to learn more about it.”

During the rest of the year, Naylor does more conventional experiments in cell biology at the Mission Bay campus, with yeast as his model organism.   

Indeed, the culture of Burning Man is hard to encapsulate and is different for different participants. While the infamous drugs and nudity are indeed prominent features, they are far from universal.

Rather, a few common attitudes, generally shared by all, unite the community, from the metal-welding sculptors to the late-night boppers, to the yogis and yoginis, the Black Rock Rangers in their cargo kilts, to the body-painting nudists, the friendly, bemused foreigners from Europe, Asia and Australia and the psychedelic explorers of inner and outer space. 

The one attempt at a codification of these values is the “10 Principles of Burning Man.”  They are:

  • radical inclusion
  • gifting
  • de-commodification
  • radical self-reliance
  • radical self-expression
  • communal effort 
  • civic responsibility
  • leaving no trace
  • participation
  • immediacy.

If that list intrigues you, you are not alone.  For many first-time Burners, the full implication of these principles is far from clear.  Many claim that it is through the process of exploring what these principles truly mean that the deepest lessons emerge. 

For example, participation is one of the most cherished principles at Burning Man, and many of the art pieces are designed to be interactive so that only with the viewer’s participation does the meaning of the art become complete. 

To the same end, many of the theme camps are constantly inviting strangers into their geodesic-domed spaces to join in activities. Without the participation of outside people, the meaning of the camp could be fulfilled.

However, citizens always draw a line somewhere, requiring private space at least for sleeping and eating. The discussion over where exactly that line should be drawn is ongoing and collaborative and makes all members of Black Rock City more aware of the boundaries between public and private in their own lives. 

If you’re interested in joining these and other dialogues, if you’re curious about joining this fleeting phantasmagorical created world, or if you simply like trying new things and experiencing the unexpected, then start planning now for the craziest camping trip of your life.  

And look around you at the members of UCSF — there may be many who, to your surprise, have had their lives recently changed by their experiences at Burning Man. If people in San Francisco seem just a little bit more compassionate and generous this September, I’d like to think that some of those Burner values are percolating out into society at large.

It is the possibility that the Black Rock City spirit might be spread to “Default World” that gives the event its truest meaning, and it is the hope that one’s life might be incrementally but indelibly redirected toward love as the deepest goal that keeps people going back.