Google Doodles Add Some Science History to Your Search
Chances are, you know the thrill of heading to Google to do a search and finding…a doodle! Doodles—periodic illustrated takeovers of the Google logo—have graced the company’s homepage since 1998, and if you’re a science and tech nerd, you’ve probably noticed that they can get geeky. Doodles have celebrated the likes of computing pioneer Claude Shannon, educated us about Wilbur Scoville’s chili pepper heat scale, and commemorated New Horizons’ Pluto flyby.
Google Doodle team leader Ryan Germick joins Ira to give some insight into how doodlers doodle, whether they’re rushing to illustrate breaking science news, or digging deep to bring less-heralded science heroes and heroines to the fore.
With over 350 doodles published each year, we’re betting you’ve missed a few. Below, find a few science and tech gems you might’ve overlooked. (And check out the full doodle archive at google.com/doodles.)
When news broke last September that NASA had detected liquid water on Mars, Germick knew the discovery had to be doodled, and fast. “I sent an email that morning to the team, and within 45 minutes, I had two proposals for how to celebrate the discovery,” Germick remembers. Doodler Nate Swinehart took the lead on this doodle of a very thirsty Mars, turning it around in “four or five hours,” says Germick.
This doodle celebrates chemist Wilbur Scoville, whose eponymous Scoville Scale attempts to objectively measure a chili pepper’s heat. “Spiciness is somewhat of a universal, comical experience, which I think opened the door for us to do something we usually might not be able to, like a fighting game,” wrote Doodler Olivia Huynh in a blog post about the doodle.
In the final version of the game, players pit the cooling power of ice cream against peppers that range in heat, from the tame bell pepper to the diabolical scorpion pepper. “At some point we thought about setting it [the game] in a human mouth, to clarify things,” Huynh wrote, “but then realized that was probably too weird.”
Germick estimates that the Doodle team produces between 350 and 400 doodles a year, but not all of them have a global reach. Some may appear in only one country or region, like this doodle for Persian mathematician Abu al-Wafa’ al-Buzjan (whose accomplishments include developing the first-ever quadrant to examine the night sky). Google celebrated his 1075th birthday on its homepages across North Africa and the Middle East.
For instrument inventor and synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog’s 78th Birthday, the Doodle team pulled off their own feat of engineering: a fully playable (and recordable) Google logo. Users could fiddle with oscillators and envelopes, and even record and mix tracks in the logo’s era-appropriate four-track recorder.
“With his passion for high-tech toolmaking in the service of creativity, Bob Moog is something of a patron saint of the nerdy arts and a hero to many of us here,” wrote software engineer Joey Hurst. “Now give those knobs a spin and compose a tune that would make Dr. Moog smile!”
Long before The Imitation Game, the Doodle team celebrated computing pioneer Alan Turing with this nerd-tastic tribute: a live-action Turing machine. Turing’s machine wasn’t actually a physical machine at all, but a work of mathematical logic. “Much of it is abstract and hard to show, so we went through a lot of designs before finding one that seemed workable,” the team wrote. The finished doodle lets players work through 12 different programming puzzles.
One of Germick’s favorite doodles celebrates Shakuntala Devi, “a numbers whiz who spent her life inspiring people to do math.” Devi’s seemingly instant mental calculations earned her the nickname the “human computer” and also suggested the form her doodle would take. “We had a great metaphor with the calculator,” says Germick.
For Julius Richard Petri’s 161st Birthday, the Doodle team cultivated microbes in the shape of the Google logo—in Petri’s namesake dish, of course!
What are some of your favorite Google doodles?
Ryan Germick leads the Google Doodle Team at Google, based in Mountain View, California.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When NASA announced evidence of liquid water on Mars last fall, geeks around the globe celebrated. Over in Mountain View, California, Google celebrated its way with a Doodle. You know Google Doodles. Every once in awhile, Google gussies up its homepage logo.
Well, on September 29th, the second O in Google was turned into a big smiley faced Mars sipping water through a straw. It wasn’t the first time a Google Doodle celebrated a scientific achievement or science hero or heroine. If you keep an eye on the Google homepage, you know those Doodles get geeky.
But how does a Doodle get made? Giving us a peek behind the scenes is illustrator and Google Doodle team leader Ryan Germick. We should note that Google is an occasional underwriter of Science Friday.
Ryan joins us today from Stanford. Welcome to Science Friday.
RYAN GERMICK: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Tell us how that Mars water Doodle came together. You had to put together that pretty quickly, I understand.
RYAN GERMICK: Oh yeah. Well, that’s just a case of trying to be aware of what’s going on in the world or in this case, in the solar system. And the news broke. And I think about maybe 10 AM, I sent email to my team soliciting concepts for what would be a fun way to celebrate.
And when a sketch came back for that, it made everybody laugh. And a few later, it’s live around the world.
IRA FLATOW: Are science advances, planetary or otherwise, good material for Google Doodles?
RYAN GERMICK: I think so for sure. I mean, as a tech company, one the things that’s sort of core to our interest is technological advances and things to celebrate that we as humankind have achieved. And discovering that was definitely something that we were curious about–
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but–
RYAN GERMICK: –and wanted–
IRA FLATOW: You also celebrate people of science, and math, and stuff like that.
RYAN GERMICK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think we like to just take the opportunity to in a way thank people for coming to the home page and to share things that we’re really excited about. And yeah, as your intro said, there’s one or two geeks at Google–
–who get excited about things like this.
IRA FLATOW: So is the nerdiness of Google Doodles really just a reflection of the nerdiness of Google employees?
RYAN GERMICK: Yeah, for sure. If you walked around a cafeteria at lunch time, you’d hear some pretty interesting things.
IRA FLATOW: Some of the Doodles are static illustrations. I’d say most of them are. But some of them get really intricate. Talk about the Wilbur Scoville Doodle that went up this year. Who was Wilbur Scoville?
RYAN GERMICK: Yeah, he’s maybe a lesser known hero of science who discovered or created the Scoville scale, which is a way to talk about the spiciness of a pepper. And this is one where we thought we could have a little more fun with.
And to illustrate the concept of spiciness of a pepper, we created a little game where inside the mouth of Wilbur Scoville, you were battling it out between an ice cream cone and a pepper. And the spicier the pepper, or the higher on the Scoville scale, the more difficult it was to defeat the pepper with your ice cream scoops.
IRA FLATOW: Mhm.
RYAN GERMICK: It’s a pretty hard game. You know, it gets harder the more you play it. And the further you get, as any game, it gets more difficult to get that pepper.
IRA FLATOW: Well–
RYAN GERMICK: Just like, you know, eating a ghost pepper might be, you know, it takes great skill or at least great tolerance to master it.
IRA FLATOW: So why did you make a fighting style game out of it? Why did you choose that?
RYAN GERMICK: We thought it– you know, we try to keep Doodles fun and lighthearted. And at the same time, we like to celebrate with different types of game mechanics to keep people interested in the topic and to sort of explore the creative side of the topic. And we’re not likely to ever make a fighting game where you’re actually inflicting harm on anyone. But we thought the natural enemies of ice cream and spicy peppers would be a good duel to put out there.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. How far back do Doodles go?
RYAN GERMICK: Doodles go back to before the company was even incorporated. So the first Google Doodle was for the Burning Man Festival in the summer of 1998. And it was a few weeks before the founders even got around to finishing their paperwork for incorporation.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And then they’ve been every month since then? How many have you had?
RYAN GERMICK: I think it’s approaching 4,000, actually–
IRA FLATOW: 4,000?
RYAN GERMICK: Yeah, over about almost 18 years.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Yeah, a few years ago, you guys got called out. The advocacy group Spark reported that between 2010 to 2013, 62% percent of people celebrated in Doodles were white men. How did your team turn that statistic around?
RYAN GERMICK: Yeah. I mean, that was a great wake-up call. There was some really– some folks who care about Doodles, which was really wonderful– and to get feedback that we weren’t representing as well as we could our audience, which is really everybody.
And so taking that feedback to heart, you know, we just tried a little harder to stray away from just like, you know, the top 100 list or whatnot of any given type of accomplishment and really started to find incredible lives from all walks of life. And with that in mind, we’ve be able to find some really, really surprising and really, really special people that have been exciting to learn about and to highlight on our homepage.
IRA FLATOW: Let me bring up one of them, one of your favorite Doodles that features a woman known as the Human Computer. Tell us about who that Doodle is.
RYAN GERMICK: Yeah. There was a Doodle we did– it originated– the idea came from our team in India. And Shakuntala Devi was an educator and advocate for math education who had an amazing ability with numbers and could do things like tell you what day of the week March 17th, 1427 was, like, faster than you could possibly look it up in a calculator, even in a computer.
And with that incredible skill for numbers, she used it to inspire people to become more interested in math. She also was just a really wonderful person, a really thoughtful person about matters of inclusion. Even in the ’70s, wrote a book about supporting LGBTQ rights in India and was quite ahead of her time in that sense.
And the Doodle kind of lent itself to a really fun visual execution, which was to sort of illustrate her as a feature of a calculator. So basically, the word Google gets spelled in like you might when a calculator is upside down. And then a little portion of her pops up kind of like a little special bonus right there in the LCD screen.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Do you get satisfaction about the impact you have, especially when you Doodle someone like her? I mean, a lot of people saw that, didn’t they?
RYAN GERMICK: Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, the fact that we could– we take great responsibility and pride in the opportunity to sort of put a spotlight on something. We actually often say we’re more NPR than we are MTV in the sense that we really are trying to highlight things that we think will enrich people’s lives and be something that would be wonderful to know about, to learn about.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
RYAN GERMICK: And yeah, it’s incredibly gratifying that someone like her could be exposed more widely. Because she did incredible things and had a life really worth celebrating.
IRA FLATOW: One of the most fun Doodles that I saw– and actually, we have all the Doodles we’re talking about on our website at sciencefriday.com/doodle. There are a bunch of them up there. Any minute, I’ll put them up.
One of the more fun ones is the one celebrating Robert Moog. How did that one work?
RYAN GERMICK: That was also another personal favorite. Like, I just grew up loving music and in particular, like, maybe nerdy music. So the sort of synthesis of technology and art that the synthesizer puts together is really fantastic. And Robert Moog is more or less a patron saint of the nerdy arts–
IRA FLATOW: Right.
RYAN GERMICK: –the way that he empowered people through the science of sound to create interesting, and weird, and beautiful music. And yeah– but when we made that, it was just that there was an opportunity to sort of play Robert Moog for a day where e could create an instrument inspired by his work and let users on a massive scale play music or at least make interesting sounds and share it.
IRA FLATOW: And that’s cool. That’s a cool one. But I think Google’s geekiest Doodle might be the one you guys made for computer pioneer Alan Turing.
RYAN GERMICK: Yeah, that’s great. Because his concepts, or his contributions, were numerous. You know, there’s been movies made about him and everything in the way that he contributed to cracking codes in World War II and saving just countless lives. But his concepts were somewhat abstract.
So we used his birthday as an opportunity to create like a puzzle game where you’d have to essentially use the fundamentals of computer science yourself with, like, if statements and things like that to solve a puzzle. And the hope is that millions and millions of people will actually be exploring the concepts of computer science without even necessarily knowing it just because it’s a fun thing to do on the homepage and then hopefully learn about his incredible life, because he’s someone who is quite inspiring and is definitely worth learning about.
IRA FLATOW: What’s the decision process like to do a Doodle? I mean, you must have a million ideas getting thrown at you and coming up with yourself. How do you narrow it down? I know we have trouble just deciding what stories to do every week here. And then what happens to the ones that you don’t use?
RYAN GERMICK: Well, ideas are never the problem. Like you say, there’s tons of ideas that come through. The thing that’s really great is that Doodles have this air of spontaneity where you kind of never know what you’re going to get. So we are able to sort of play with that idea and just try to keep a variety that keeps the people that come to the Google homepage use the Google app to, you know, shake it up a little bit and surprise them.
And so what we do is we actually just have a huge list, like you said. And really, it’s once a year, we go through this process where we try to plan out the entire next year. And we’ll look at hundreds or in some cases thousands of ideas and try to divvy them up across different countries.
The majority of Doodles we do are actually not seen in the US. They’re actually international– and try to create some sort of system where we can have some that are interactive, some that are animated, just again that variety where you just never know what you’re going to get, to have that spontaneous surprise come to you when you wake up and try to log on to Google for the first time in the day.
IRA FLATOW: Do you find your ideas or your technology, your technique evolving over time? Like, if you look back at the old Doodles, they’re not half as good as the new ones or quite different, or–
–who knows what will happen the next day?
RYAN GERMICK: That’s also exciting, because we’re on a technology platform that keeps changing. So, you know, I started almost 10 years ago working at Google. And back then, doing some kind of interactive game on a mobile phone would have been bonkers. But now we’re looking for the opportunities that new technology and new platforms make available.
And really, it’s ultimately about like, how can we connect with the folks that use Google to give them a little human touch in their day and something that–
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
RYAN GERMICK: –hopefully inspires curiosity?
IRA FLATOW: With so many people on mobile platforms, do you have to craft it so you can see it on a smaller device?
RYAN GERMICK: Yeah, absolutely. Like, that’s a– we always, in any creative situation, look for the constraints and try to find the best way to execute something that’s going to be an enjoyable experience. So mobile devices are both a constraint but also an opportunity. Because also, everyone’s got this supercomputer in their pocket.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
RYAN GERMICK: So the availability to reach people becomes much greater.
IRA FLATOW: Now you said a great many of your Doodles are not seen by Americans. How can we go see them? I mean, can we log on to a different country somehow?
RYAN GERMICK: You could do that. Or you can actually also go to– we have a website where we collect many thousands of Doodles. And you can even go back and play the games and watch the animations at google.com/doodles.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We have that up there on our website also. Thank you, Ryan, for taking time to be with us today.
RYAN GERMICK: It’s our pleasure. It’s a great privilege to be able to share things with the world and have them play with them. And I’m glad that we share a love for science and technology.
IRA FLATOW: Now we have our on 25th anniversary coming up in October. Maybe we can talk you into doing a Doodle for us.
RYAN GERMICK: I’ll put it on the list. I’ll put it on the list.
IRA FLATOW: Thaks a lot. Now Ryan Germick is the leader of the Google Doodle team. And he joined us from Stanford.