Friday, April 06, 2007

Bubbly, bubbly bubbles in science

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.


  1. Anonymous said...

    that is something about these big "mela" like meetings, i think.
    well- i guess you can chalk it down to another character building experience. :p

  2. Niket said...

    You are talking about something different than the "herd mentality" that Ponderer refers.

    The big umbrella meetings are not organized well, have several sessions of ones interest going on simultaneously and have typically higher acceptance rates that allows a dreadfully incomplete work to follow some really insightful or interesting talk. As a result, people often go to talks based on who the speaker is. A talk of mine at AIChE ( was extremely well attended. Later on I discovered that my advisor was denoted as the speaker in the sessions info.

    I had the pleasure of attending Combustion Institute symposium recently. It is also a large-ish symposium, but significantly well organized and with a low acceptance rate. You had a 25-minute slot, with 5 minutes for questions, 1 minute for change-over; the session chairs were very particular of sticking to the schedule. All sessions that I went to were well attended. Due to the well-planned scheduling, people entered or left during that one minute change-over. While some sessions were more popular than others (session-to-session variations could be significant), I saw less than 15% of people leaving or entering at the end of a presentation... most talks in a session had more-or-less equal attendence.

    I've heard that Gordon conferences tend to be similar... even more so. Never attended one.

  3. Abi said...

    TGIF: Character-building experience, it certainly was!

    Niket: You are talking about something different than the "herd mentality" that Ponderer refers.

    Mmmm, I don't think so. Here's the point (which was implicit in the post):

    The 'herd' attended the talk just before mine, and (in a mercenary fashion) went on to the next one in a different session and hall. Reason? Those talks were all in a 'hot' subfield of that era ('intermetallics').

    I agree with your other points about large conferences with multiple parallel sessions. I too prefer smaller, focused conferences.

    BTW, do Gordon Conferences have parallel sessions? I don't think so, but I haven't been to one myself.