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Science. Communication. Community.

A Tale of Two Meetings

Now that the Internet exists, why do we still go to meetings? Is a more general conference better or worse than a specific one?  

by Kerstin Nordstrom

About two weeks ago, I left DC for not one, but two conferences.

The meetings were opposites in many ways. Where one was general, the other was specific, and vice versa. Where one was simple, the other was complicated, and vice versa.

The first (un)conference was ScienceOnline in Raleigh, NC, which was described in another post here. The second conference was the APS March Meeting, in Denver, CO, an annual meeting for physicists.

APS stands for the American Physical Society. Back in the old days, before the arXiv, APS meetings were a place where new results were presented, sometimes with courtroom-style drama if someone in the audience disagreed. (This occasionally happens still, but it’s rare. And usually it’s the result of the presenter not completely understanding their own work and/or the questioner being unusually curmudgeonly, not any deep scientific discourse.)

In the past, there was one meeting of the APS per year. But adaptations were made to accommodate the growth of the meetings. At some point, the annual meeting was split into two. Now, a meeting in March looks at topics in “condensed matter physics,” which I sometimes like to think of as the science of everyday stuff.

A meeting in April looks at topics in particle physics, astrophysics, and so on. Topics I like to think of as the science of sexy stuff.

While I couldn’t locate the exact attendance history, the current numbers are telling: about 8500 attendees at the March Meeting, about 1200 expected at the April meeting. Further, many physicists who might otherwise attend the March Meeting are starting to go instead to the Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting (~3,000), and might even stray to the AGU meeting (20,000) or even the ASCB meeting (10,000) if their research is sufficiently interdisciplinary.

So while Cosmos/Cosmos is sexy, the science of everyday stuff is the meal ticket of many.

The March Meeting ticks like clockwork. Over five days there are three time blocks for sessions, from 8 – 5:30 with only 15 minutes between sessions. To accommodate the over 600 sessions that happen in these 5 days, during each time block over 50 sessions happen in parallel. Each contributed talk gets exactly 12 minutes, so someone interested in going to consecutive talks at opposite sides of the convention center has a shot at timing it correctly. The sessions are very specific, and the talks often just describe one tiny, specialized thing. Even if you’re giving a talk, it’s easy to be missed amongst the masses.

ScienceOnline has a schedule, but it’s less rigid. I carpooled from DC with David Grinspoon, a well-known astrobiologist. [By coincidence, David was a family friend of Carl Sagan and ended up working in Sagan’s lab at one point in his journey.] We weren’t worried about exactly when we made it, since no official sessions were happening that day. But once we got to the hotel, an emergent mass of humans had formed in the bar, which probably made up 25% of the conference attendees. The conference had already begun.

ScienceOnline’s sessions had generous breaks, which allowed either physical or mental respite from intense discussion, or the opportunity to mingle. The sessions were unconference-y in the sense they were not exclusively PowerPoints. The majority of the content was generated by those in attendance, by passing around a talking stick. (The talking stick was actually a microphone so the sessions could be archived/webcast, but there were so many hands raised an instrument like this would have been needed in any event.)

Upon reflection, I have issues with both meetings. I have been to the March Meeting many times now, while this was my first ScienceOnline. At the March Meeting, the talks are so specialized, it can be difficult to find overlap with your projects, even within your own sub-sub-discipline. Some of the talks are just plain bad, or so arcane they can’t be understood. For the talks that really interest you, it’s entirely likely you are already collaborating or competing with this person, and so have already seen these results on arXiv or in person. But it’s still nice to be pleasantly surprised by a talk, and it does happen, though sometimes it seems like it happens less and less often.

With ScienceOnline, the topics were so broad that it was often unclear what we were even discussing, or if a worthwhile discussion was even happening. I don’t want to call anyone out, but I will give one example. I remember feeling quite frustrated in a session on women in science. A conclusion reached was that people in positions of power, specifically in the academic/publishing/funding spheres, needed to do better. But there were a vanishing number of people in the room who interact with these sorts of people on a regular basis, at least in a way where they might have some tangible influence. So what was accomplished there? Stating the obvious? (If the leader of the session reads this post, I thought it was a very valuable session overall, especially with the more focused follow-ups that happened over the course of the conference.)

With all my complaining, you may be surprised to read that I will likely attend both in the future. And if funds and time weren’t part of the equation, I might do both every year.

The reason, you may have guessed, is the people. Meetings are for meeting.

Due to the large size of the March Meeting, I have rarely met someone arbitrarily at the meeting itself. However, I know people from my lab in grad school, from my current lab, people I went to grad school with, people I met on Twitter, and people I met at smaller conferences (like the Gordon conference, a focused week with only about 100 people). So March Meeting is a great excuse to catch up with them and share new ideas. And more established scientists often go to few sessions anyway — they fill up their day with face-to-face meetings with current and potential collaborators. So while there’s this seemingly rigid structure in place, it belies what is really happening. People are chatting. It’s energizing.

Similarly with ScienceOnline, what frustrations I felt in the actual sessions were ameliorated by the informal exchanges outside of the sessions. From these exchanges, I have about three new side projects that might bloom or go bust, but they’re exciting. I’ve met an uncountable number of new friends of varying depth. Some of these friendships will grow closer in the meantime on Twitter or in meatspace, some will wait a year to be rehashed. Some may only exist on Twitter in the future, and that’s okay.

And that’s the thing isn’t it? In science, science communication, and our personal life, so many of our interactions are online now. But to make those connections to begin with, we still like to meet in meatspace. And meeting again enhances those connections. We’re only human.

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One comment on “A Tale of Two Meetings

  1. irenehelenowski
    March 18, 2014

    LOL, just came back from APS myself. Yeah, you pretty much have to plan out what kind of sessions you want to go before these meetings. I mostly attended talks in cancer research and I attended one talk dealing with infectious diseases to learn more about the science of the data I analyze everyday and I actually learned a lot. I did go into one quantum mechanics talk though, as I’m starting to write science fiction involving such concepts but I got lost in 5 minutes and was like “no”. Anyway, great article! May I also suggest attending the Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) in the summer? It’ll be in Boston. And after all, statisticians are sexy ;)

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This entry was posted on March 14, 2014 by in Physics, Research, Science Journalism and tagged , , , , , .
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