Last week, I attended the Science Online 2012 Un-Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. You’ve probably heard of it. This is a fairly new conference, having run for only the last few years, and was masterfully run and organized by Bora Zivkovic, Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen. Most of the attendees are science journalists, writers, bloggers, and/or actual scientists. The “formal” sessions are, or at least attempt to be, topically-focused group discussions led by one or two individuals. The topics covered at this conference vary from year to year, but generally deal with science communication.
The main reason I go to this conference is to re-connect with friends and colleagues, many of whom I only see there. Having said that, once the conference is underway, I find that the sessions themselves are always interesting and useful, sometimes even transformative. The nature and character of the conference changes from year to year, as one topic or another emerges as a sort of conference-wide theme (but not to the exclusion of other themes) yet also stays the same in important ways from year to year, owing to the excellent stewardship of the organizers. Let me give you an example of the later: One of the most important things that happens at a conference like this is the conversation that occurs “in the hallways” (meaning, not in the session). As a conference grows (and this one has quadrupled in size over four or five years) more and more sessions are usually added, and all the time in the day is taken up, usually, with talks and workshops and the like. But not for this conference. Science Online 2012 sessions all started at 9:30 AM, one and one half hours after the start of an on-site “continental breakfast” consisting of dozens of gallons of coffee, hundreds of muffins, and some yogurt. That hour or so hanging around with friends and colleagues, caffeinating and feeding, can be one of the more productive hours of the day. I wish I could do that every day.
The conference also included some plenary events which were not discussion, including a keynote talk by National Geographic’s Mireya Mayor; a banquet with some of our own participating in the Monti Tradition, and an appearances at lunch by the Science Comedian.
Mireya Mayor’s talk was engaging and interesting, but it did make me feel a little old. Many of her African adventures reminded me of my own. At one point she showed a photo of herself and three other guys suited out for a reality show in which Explorers head off into the wild using only equipment available in the old days, and they were obviously prepared with the same technology I used during my initial field work in Zaire. The Monti talks were all well done and entertaining, and included (among others) a moving talk (brought a tear to my eyes) by my friend Marie-Claire Shanahan and a raucous fall-on-the-floor-laughing talk by my Bloggy BFF Bug Girl.
I think it’s funny that Science has a Comedian. It’s even funnier that we have only one. And he was indeed funny. Which is good, because he’s the only one!
I have a couple of projects to work on that were hatched at the conference, and some ongoing projects were re-energized. I take opportunities like this to rethink my own work, my own approach to blogging as well as activism, and to calibrate my thinking about what everyone else is doing. I spent enough time with Desiree Schell that a lot of people at the conference probably assume we are a couple; My home-girl Lynn Fellman and I got some real work done even though she lives down the road from me, and Lynn, James Hrynyshyn, and I have a plan to take over the world. I got to meet long time Internet friend Madhusudan Katti and thoroughly enjoyed the session he ran on communicating science in developing nations. I explored duck penis anatomy with SciCurious, shared the experience of eating the Largest Cupcake Ever Made with Zuska, played Bingo with Janet Stemwedel, had a few too-short chats with Tom Levenson (one of the people I go to the conference to converse with) and David Dobbs (another). This is the first time I’ve seen fellow Palaeoanthropologist John Hawks at one of these, and we had a couple of pleasant (but again, too short) chats. I only barely saw Kevin Zelnio and the other Deep Sea News swabbies, but I did have a very productive and interesting talk with Miriam Goldstein. More about that later!
Fellow Scienceblogger Peter Genzer and I met for the first time and had a long conversation about blogging and science communication punctuated only by occasional foraging forays.
Stephanie Zvan was there, and she was responsible for the cupcakes and a fantastic session on politics and science, and she was there with Ben, but we hardly ever ran into each other because we were both too busy hanging with people we don’t see too often.
The presence of art and artists is expanding at Science Online; Artist Glendon Mellow is always at this conference, and we had some great conversations about life and death and art. One of the funniest things I heard all weekend was Glendon mentioning that he had attended a funeral to which people were asked to not wear black. “Well, I wore black of course. That’s all I ever wear.” (OK, maybe you had to be there.)
One of my favorite new people (well, not really new on The Earth, but new to me) is Psi Wavefunction. I was blathering on in the usual manner at breakfast (see above) about protists. Every time I said something interesting about protists, she would add something even more interesting. Eventually I realized that she is a protist expert. How cool is that? And I had just been thinking that need more friends who know about protists.
Josh Rosenau and I have been trying to get together for years, and for the first time, we managed to do so at Science Online 2012. I should mention that one of the few spontaneous not-at-the-end-of-something rounds of applause went out to Josh as a show of support and appreciation for the work he and the NCSE are doing.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is another person from the Twin Cities who attended the conference. We had some conversations. Some plots may have been hatched. You will be hearing more about Maggie’s work soon enough on this blog (and elsewhere).
I did not get to go to Danielle Lee‘s session, unfortunately, but we met. Sheril Kirshenbaum was there but we hardly got to chat, though we had hoped to. She and Shawn Otto (another Twin Cities denizen) ran a session on science policy which was one of the more important sessions that I attended. Shawn and I did get to spend a bit more time with each other. Again, you’ll hear more about that at a later time as well.
It was great as always to see Eric Michael Johnson. We have a lot of overlap in perspective but very different experiences in research, and I think we make a good team. At something.
Darlene of Science Cheerleader Fame and Discover.com and I had a long talk about on line collaborative tools, the science communication industry, and the weather. We have a few things to get busy with.
Chris Mooney participated in a very interesting session at which ontogenetic or genetic (I tend to think the former) causes of political orientation were discussed. The main thrust of the discussion was about how to communicate research related to this finding. Too much happened in that session for me to give a feel for it here. This is a topic that will be explored in detail in due course.
And there was more, much more. Over 400 people attended the conference. There were dozens of individuals I would have liked to chat with, but never got the chance. The conversation I had were funny, moving, inspiring, informative, and all sorts of things.
Science Online 2012 was a Reset Event for me. I’ve been heading for a reset anyway, and I knew this conference would serve this role so I kinda held off on it. You may or may not see the effects of this from where you sit, but I will feel them here.
There are two things that I need to say somewhere and this is as good a place as any to say them: Looking at the long list of sponsors of the conference, I feel rather bad that National Geographic and Scienceblogs, as a partnership, did not contribute. I suppose that is because no one asked. The second thing is that although I heard this mentioned only twice, it was somewhat stinging when I did: “Scienceblogs … oh, the Pepsigate thing, right…” No. Scienceblogs is not the “Pepsigate thing” or at least it should not be. That was one event, it was important, but it was a long time ago and it really is time to get over it. I recently saw a major talk by a famous celebrity at a major conference, and the person who gave the talk is famous for a TV show that is 75% owned by Rupert Murdock’s “Fox” network. If Scienceblogs is “The Pepsigate Thing” then that speaker, the conference at which the talk was given, and everyone involved in organizing it are “The Fox News Thing” right? No. Not right. This is a complex world and we often find ourselves in bed, or at least in the same room with, less than ideal entities of one form or another. We try to stay clean, we strive to stay honest and generally do. We work with what we have. If we mark each other with negative labels on the basis of what the corporate world(s) around us do, then only the hermits survive criticism. Time for a reset on Pepsigate too. [/endrant]