Flitting through Saturday at SICB

Rather than burning out, I decided I just needed a happy fun day at the SICB meetings, so I put away the notepad and flitted about from session to session to check out a semi-random subset of the diverse talks available here. So I listened to talks on jaw articulations and feeding mechanisms in cartilaginous fishes; the direct developing frog, Eleutherodactylus coqui; Hox gene expression in the fins of Polyodon (which was really cool—that curious HoxD gene flip across the digits may be a primitive condition, rather than a derived tetrapod state); biomechanical properties of spider webs; the physics of snake slithering; and the role of university based natural history museums. It was very relaxing.

One thing I wish more people in the lay public could understand is that science is just plain fun, and that scientists do things because the natural world is so beautiful and so engrossing. Maybe these scientific meetings should be accompanied by a few lectures open to the public…


  1. says

    Lectures open to the public would be fun, and good. The physicists met in Dallas last spring, and Lisa Randall gave a public lecture on fun stuff in string theory. A hundred or so high school students showed up among a few hundred others. She stayed and signed her book, Warped Passages.

    Or, you could issue invitations to journalists and insist they be there. When I did press for the Senate Labor Committee — which has jurisdiction over health and science research — it was simply impossible to get out enough press releases covering all the great stuff that came out of NIH. Then there was NSF and NAS, and others. EPA was a different committee. So was energy (research into atoms and nuclear reactions).

    Scientists need to spend a few minutes a month stroking the assignment editors at their local papers — you, P.Z., need to talk to the papers in Morris, and Minneapolis, and St. Paul, and Chicago, and Duluth, to mention a few. If you did that, and half the scientists in the University of Minnesota system alone did that, the assignment editors would assign more science stories (out of self-defense, if nothing else); they’d probably get their eyes opened about what’s going on in science; and they might well get more reporters to cover the stories.

    And then we need to do the same thing from the universities in Illinois, and Indiana, and Ohio, and New York, and South Carolina, and Texas, and Alabama . . . you should see the picture by now.

    Sure, some journalists don’t have the mental chops to understand it all. Nor do most of the public. Heck, for that matter there’s always some idiot who gets in on a discovery just because he has great technique with the measuring devices and was in the right place at the right time.

    But keep trying.

  2. says

    ` YEAH!! That’s the thing – the general public is pretty much oblivious to what happens in such meetings, much less any aspect of science.
    ` Fun lectures like that should be open for all to see.

  3. says

    Since pretty much all basic science is tax funded it’s rather insane to close these conferences to the public. It’s not like you’d have the public overwhelming them. In addition, why isn’t there some small pot of money expressly allocated to some “laypersons lectures”? If you want people to appreciate science, make some effort to communicate.

    I assume this isn’t done because the scientists involved in giving papers at conferences are motivated by the publish-or-perish rule. I doubt many would get professional credit for talking to the public at large. Dawkins is the only scientist I’ve ever heard of who holds a Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. One guy — in the whole world.

  4. Ichthyic says

    right, andy, and NSF funded scientific outreach programs don’t exist at all.

    Heck, they even give awards for outreach excellence, which you could easily have found out about in less than 5 seconds:


    you CAN cure your own ignorance, about science and attempts to outreach.

    It only takes the slightest bit of effort, and you actually have to CARE about the subject first, rather than being a bitter idiot who thinks his tax dollars are wasted by the likes of PZ.

    don’t ever paint yourself as “the average joe layman”, ’cause you ain’t nothin’ o the sort.

    Rancid internet troll, yes, interested layperson, no.

  5. Mena says

    Fermilab has a few lectures every year and they are cheap, $5/person. Lisa Randall was there earlier this year, she really is a good speaker. On Jan. 19 Neil Shubin is going to be giving a lecture about Tiktaalik roseae. I’m sure that other places have good scientific stuff like that, it may just be a little more rare in the smaller cities.

  6. Warren Terra says

    It occurs to me that video’ing and webcasting talks at a meeting wouldn’t be that expensive or that hard to do, as long as the speakers were warned and consented, especially for meetings like the AAAS conferences that are really more about public outreach than they are about sharing the science with people in the same field.

    In this vein, the Nobel lectures, which tend to be pretty great talks and very accessible (though more historical, and perhaps less than representative), have been online for at least the last several years; this year’s are at the link; I’m not sure whether the previous years are accessible at their site (I know they used to be), but they also appear to stream a selection of Nobel lectures and Nobelist interviews

  7. Rowena says

    The XIX International Congress of Genetics was held in Melbourne, Australia in 2003, and had a number of public participation events- as an undergrad at Melbourne Uni at the time, we were encouraged to attend these events. (I had enough money to send myself to the conference itself- I didn’t understand much but it was really intersting). The public events included extracting your own DNA to be sent of for sequencing (mitochondrial DNA I think- can’t remember), and some public lectures and debates. It was a really big deal to have a conference like that in Melbourne, and it attracted a lot of media attention, which probably had a lot to do with the 6 nobel laureates that were invited!

  8. mjh says

    Dawkins is the only scientist I’ve ever heard of who holds a Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. One guy — in the whole world.

  9. says

    There are a couple of reasons they aren’t generally open.

    1. It costs money to run these things, and they aren’t cheap. Registration for this meeting is over $300 — non-members can sign up if they want to pay, but there isn’t much interest.

    2. Most of the talks are NOT, I repeat NOT, layman friendly. They do not provide background information, and as I mentioned on an earlier post, the information density is very, very high. Would you pay $300 to listen to talks where you only understand every fifth word?

    3. Biology meetings have one special problem: the animal rights lobby. Some of these people are dangerous and violent, and we don’t want some kook in the audience who doesn’t understand most of what’s being said, other than that they’re seeing photos of dissected animals.

    4. Lectures for the general public take extra work. To do this would require making a special effort by the organizers, and they’d have to ask someone to present a special extra lecture…this isn’t necessarily easy stuff.

  10. Scott Hatfield says

    AndyS wrote: In addition, why isn’t there some small pot of money expressly allocated to some “laypersons lectures”? If you want people to appreciate science, make some effort to communicate.”

    It seems to me that, especially in the 19th century that leading members of the scientific community gave a lot more face time in a variety of venues to John Q. Public than they do now. Think of T.H. Huxley’s missionary work with assemblies of trade unionists in support of science education, or the many scientific lectures offered through the Chautauqua movement up until the Great Depression.

    However, science today is so specialized that much of it is unsuited to popularization. (This trend also makes make scientists unsuitable for the task of popularization)

    Hoary anecdonte: just the other day I was reading a pretty well-written article on current research interests in RNA in the current Scientific American. Pretty much half of the article was devoted to explaining things which are rudimentary for us, but daunting for laypeople: things like DNA’s structure, protein synthesis and past work on RNA. Nothing was assumed, but as I read the thing it occurred to me that most laypeople would simply give up long before getting to the article’s actual topic because the learning curve was too steep.

    Thankfully, people like PZ are involved in setting up things like Cafe Scientifiques around the world. Boy, do we need something like that where I live (Fresno). Perhaps it will happen someday, soon.

  11. Ichthyic says

    Biology meetings have one special problem: the animal rights lobby

    no doubt, but those guys are a headache at not just biology meetings.

    they used to block the access to our campus bio building every year (sometimes more) for at least an hour and a half, spouting nonsense about how we tortured monkeys, etc.

    of course, nobody in the building actually worked on monkeys (we worked on fish, and most of the rest were MCB folk), but I guess they didn’t care about that part.

    I remember getting so pissed off one year I managed to convince the “head marcher” that the old life sciences building (which had been completely gutted for renovation) was where the REAL mad science experiments were going on, and they should picket that building instead. After all, that was why they put fences around it, to “keep out the rabble”.

    They bought it and marched around an empty building all day long.

    still brings a tear to my eye just to think about it. I think that one action made me more friends than any other single thing I have ever done.

  12. KL says

    Animal Rights groups threaten institutions where no invasive research is done (behavior and conservation only, where saving critically endangered species is the ONLY goal). They don’t do their homework before choosing a target. Poor little animals need to be “free”; no thought to the fact that there is no habitat to “free” them to.

    On the other topic; perhaps the public ought to be invited to the NSTA conventions. (National Science Teachers Association). Lots of fun science, new toys, and excitement, and very accessible to the layman. Costs are low (teachers can’t afford much) and it might show the public that the public schools are doing a lot of good science these days. I don’t think the public gives public schools the credit they deserve. I didn’t (I work in an independent school) until I attended regional and national conventions that mostly represent public school science. There is a lot of good stuff happening.

  13. Stephen says

    It’s not just “animal rights” groups. A few years ago we had a similar bunch protesting outside our office against our manufacture of chips for the defence industry.

    As it happens we were purely a software company, with no hardware manufacturing capacity whatever, and our last defence contract had finished over two years earlier.

    Elementary facts to these people are like partial differential equations to three-year olds.

  14. says

    Why wait for a national meeting? Most universities have some form of public speaker program for local outreach. The Natural History Museum at the University of Oklahoma has an excellent such program that’s locally advertized and well-attended.

    Imagine if each professor across the world put together one public lecture–spent some time and invested some pride in it–and was called on to give it one evening every few years or so.

    We can dream, can’t we? ;-)

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  15. says

    If one thinks scientific conferences are expensive, just look at the outrageous prices of computing industry things. Four digit price tags for a lot of them. Of course, probably a lot of them are money-making semi-scams, but …