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,”

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.

Credit:

Google

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 before the company was even incorporated. 

“There are one or two geeks at Google that get excited about things like this,” says Google Doodle team leader Ryan Germick. “If you walked around a cafeteria at lunchtime you'd hear some pretty interesting things.” 

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.

Alan Turing’s 100th Birthday
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.

“As a tech company, you know, one of the things that's sort of core to our interests is technological advances and things to celebrate that we have, as humankind, achieved,” Germick says.

Google doodles are not without controversy. Several years ago an advocacy group reported that between 2010 and 2013, 62 percent of people celebrated in doodles were white men. 

“That was a great wake up call,” Germick says. “There was some really, you know, 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, we just tried a little harder to stray away from the top hundred list or whatnot of any given type of accomplishment. And really [try to] sort of find incredible lives from all walks of life. With that in mind, we were really able to find some really really surprising really really special people that have been exciting to learn about and to to highlight on our home page.”

Shakuntala Devi’s 84th Birthday
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.

Every year Germick and his team go through a huge list of thousands of ideas and try to plan out the next 12 months of doodles. Some are animated, and many of them are for an international audience and do not even show up in the US. 

“You just never know if you're gonna 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,” Germick says. “We take great responsibility and pride in the opportunity to sort of put a spotlight on something.

"We actually often say we are more NPR than we are MTV in the sense that, you know, 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.”

Robert Moog’s 78th Birthday
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.

The first Google doodle ever created was made for the Burning Man festival in the summer of 1998, a few weeks before Google’s founders even finished the paperwork for incorporation. Now, after almost two decades, there are over 4,000 doodles in the Google archives.

Many of them can be viewed online at the full doodle archive.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

Note: Google is an occasional underwriter of Science Friday.

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