Now that IUPS 2013 has concluded successfully, I thought I should add a few of my conference thoughts, other than those mentioned in the earlier post.
As I am a lazy so-and-so, and I can’t muster too much thinking this late on a weekend evening, I shall give my thoughts in a kind of poll/questionnaire format.
The Conference Centre Was…
Actually pretty good, despite my antipathy to big conferences/conference centres AND my pre-bash misgivings that Birmingham in mid-Summer was any sort of place for a gathering. The centre/site is actually very good, less than 10 min walk from Birmingham New St Station (which is being renovated, and looks like it will be quite good if it ever gets finished). The conference centre is well air-conditioned, and had enough halls of sufficient size for all the things I went to. The conference centre staff directing you to the halls were unfailingly tolerant.
The one gripe, common to many such events, is that in non ‘camber-ed’ rooms – rooms where the floor doesn’t slope downwards toward the front like in a lecture theatre – it is hard to see the slides projected at the front unless they are projected high up. Some rooms have high enough ceilings to do this, but not all. In the absence of a high ceiling, only rows 1-3 and the people by the central aisle can actually see the data, which is a shame.
The surrounding area was….
A pleasant surprise. Birmingham has converted its canal network into a kind of ‘red-brick Riviera’, with canal boats cruising along past complexes of canal-side restaurants and bars. There are lots of these around the ICC and the various conference hotels near it, which provided a good place to do the informal conference-related stuff (that’s eating and drinking -ed). Though a few more inexpensive sandwich outlets or lunch places would have spared my bank balance.
Just down the road was the Birmingham Walkabout Bar, which has attained a certain level of fame in the world of cricket, at least with respect to this year’s Ashes series between England and Australia. I did point the bar out to my Australian friends but they all seemed suddenly to have lost interest in cricket.
The biggest downside of mega-conferences is…
Too many things clash. This is especially true when you are running TWELVE (sic) sessions in parallel.
The organisers are…
To be applauded for doing an excellent job.
They are probably also mighty relieved.
I seem to remember being on the Phys Soc’s ruling Council at about the time when the successful bid to hold IUPS 2013 was made. It seemed then to be years and years away (well, probably ten or so). I cannot believe it has come around so quickly – at least quickly for me, though I dare say it feels every bit of ten years, or possibly a few more, for those involved in the organisational effort that goes into a mega-meeting.
I actually happened to bump into one organiser a few weeks before and asked him if he was looking forward to it.
“Yes.” he said “Get there on the Saturday. Six days and nights of it. Then I’m free!”
People came from…
One thing I hadn’t expected was just how many delegates there would be from developing countries. Indeed, it was the Brits who seemed a bit thin on the ground this time (recession? conference fatigue? dislike of Aston Villa FC?). Total delegate numbers topped 3000, I’m told, though I don’t know what fraction were UK-based.
The wide geographical distribution of delegates serves as a good reminder that the practise of scientific disciplines (and also teaching them to students) is not confined to the rich countries that do most of the higher-profile research. Reflecting this, the developing world representation seems to be strong in the Symposia devoted to teaching and to the history of science. As I sat in one Symposium, the chair introduced two delegates from North Korea (aka the DPRK), noting that they ‘had had a complicated and difficult journey to get here, but were most welcome’. This triggered a spontaneous round of applause. As I’ve written here before in a number of contexts, the sense of science as an international endeavour remains strong amongst scientists. Indeed, in some ways that feeling of collectiveness, and solidarity, seems to me to be a major purpose of these 4-yearly mega-fests.
Another thing that came over strongly was the increasing amount of science coming out of China. This was especially noticeable in the poster sessions. A feature of the posters from Chinese labs was how many of them dealt with effects of natural products used in traditional medicine. This is an area where there has been some controversy in recent years regarding clinical trials, so it was good to see the evidence of experimental rigour being applied to the investigation of the basic biology of these substances.
A personal high spot for me was…
Meeting Harriet Tuckey, author of the excellent Everest: The First Ascent, at the science history session, together with two of the members of the 1960-61 Silver Hut altitude expedition, Prof John (JB) West and Jim Milledge.
The presenter I felt the most sympathy for was….
The young clinical medic presenting a summary of her intercalating BSc dissertation work from a few years back looking at the Silver Hut Expedition … to an audience where sat, in the front row, were expedition members West and Milledge together with Harriet Tuckey, daughter of Expedition Co-Leader and Chief Scientist Griff Pugh..! If I’d been doing that talk my knees would have turned to jelly. Luckily, junior doctors are made of sterner stuff than me, and she carried it off admirably.
Most unusual occurrence…
For me has to be the only time I have heard a heated row at a conference, this one in front of one of the exhibitor stands. As far as I could tell, one speaker seemed to be accusing the other speaker (who wasn’t speaking much and looked mostly bemused) of mis-appropriating their ideas. I heard, inter alia, the words ‘a million dollars’ and ‘lawyers’, and the parting shot ‘You’re an [expletive deleted]‘ You don’t hear THAT every day at a conference.
We’re all getting old
As one does at these events, I also got to catch up with a good few of my global network of cronies and scientific friends. Some of them I hadn’t seen since Christchurch in 2001. It will come as no surprise that we are all looking older, though there was the odd person whose appearance was so apparently unchanged that they must have a mysterious picture of themselves ageing in an attic somewhere.