Ponderer has a post on 'herd mentality' in science. While reading it, I couldn't help being flooded with memories of my own first brush with 'the herd'.
* * *
Place: Chicago. Time: 1988. Event: My first appearance in a big conference.
[The Fall Meeting of TMS, the professional society of materials scientists, is a veritable mela, with thousands of participants attending (and presenting papers and posters in) tens of parallel sessions over several days. ]
My own oral presentation was scheduled in one of the sessions titled General Abstracts, which means exactly what it says: the five or six talks in any one of those sessions can be on anything in materials science.
I reached the lecture hall well in time, and from a carefully selected seat in the second row, I surveyed the territory. It was a largish hall with a capacity of about fifty seats, with half of them already occupied. I could see my adviser two rows behind mine, deep in conversation with a friend of his. I could see a few friends in the back rows; they waved at me cheerily. More people were pouring in in a steady trickle through the two entrances to the hall.
As we got closer to the session's start, the hall was not just getting full, it was overflowing. People stood in the aisles and sat on the floor between the screen and the first row. Some people even stood outside, peering in through the open doorways. Man, this was fantastic! A windfall!
I was thrilled. I was pumped up. I was going to floor this fabulously large audience of my peers (and quite a few stalwarts) with my stellar intelligence and superstellar erudition!
The first talk began. I was too excited then -- and too old now -- to recall much from that talk, but I do recall one thing. At the end of that talk -- and even before the session chairman could say, "any questions?" -- the audience just stood up and trooped out!
And I, the next speaker, had a grand audience of seven people: two friends of mine, my adviser, his friend, the session chairman, the next speaker and an unidentified lurker.
What about the previous speaker? Even she had bolted from the hall immediately after she was done.