Monday, 31 March 2014


Scientists love going to conferences. Conferences are the only dream of academia that comes true. The young novices who stagger drooling towards the glittering attractions of academic life are disappointed to find when they reach them that they were all mirages -- except for the conference. To the PhD student the conference is simultaneously the most exotic and most legitimate way to avoid work on their research. To the tenured professor it is the only legitimate way to avoid all the work that is not research.

The conference is a professor's opportunity to convince themselves that they aren't just another white-collar worker who spends their days in painful tedious meetings in their office, longing for those precious hours of release when they get to leave their office and attend painful tedious meetings elsewhere. When their neighbours ask, "How's work?" they usually have no more to offer than a stock variant on, "Busy." Sometimes they even begin to entertain the frightening possibility that they aren't any more special than ordinary people. When a conference is approaching, however, their conviction in their exceptionality returns, and they can bask in some luxurious mock exasperation. "Oh, it's terrible. I'm just rushed off my feet. Need to get ready for a conference in Buenos Aires next week."

This is not all bluff. It is crucial that the professor have results to present; it is a matter of survival. Not professional survival, of course; the acquisition of tenure has removed any need for the pretence of productivity. No, we're talking about something far more terrifying: survival of the ego. To turn up at a conference without results to crow about is like a painter who's struggling in the midst of a confused canvas, and decides to take a break and visit a museum. And what's in the museum? Hundreds and hundreds of paintings that are all finished! It is just chock full of examples of what real artists can do, and how easily they can do it. The tortured painter can tell immediately, with professionally trained depressed eyes, that all of these accomplished bastards in the Impressionist wing just trudged out one morning into the fields, propped up their easels in front of a lopsided farmhouse or an especially gnarled tree, dabbed away for a few hours, and then caught a cab directly to the museum.

A conference is even worse, because, at the end of each scientist's presentation of their latest breakthrough, they will casually list the 5-10 major problems that they plan to solve before the next conference. Hapless Professor Useless begins to panic. That idiot I scooped last year is now six months ahead of me! And another six months from now, every outstanding question in my field will be solved! The last slide of every talk is inevitably and erroneously titled, "Outlook", but instead of taking comfort in their clumsy ineptitude at basic English usage, Professor Scrapheap realizes that they are correct: they have very precisely forecast the bleak outlook for his own career. After a week of sitting through this onslaught of others' accomplishments, Professor Hasbeen is convinced that within a year all of human knowledge will be complete, and scientific research of any kind will be relegated to historical curiosity.

The bottom line: it is essential that professors can spend the entire conference absorbed in their own results, and need have no fear that their delicate sensibilities will be upset by having to listen to anyone else's.

The situation is not quite so dire for the student. In fact, the potential to use recent results as leverage to argue for permission to attend a conference, acts as pretty much the student's only motivation to complete any work at all. Science is all about performance, in which the coveted role of genius is the academic equivalent of playing Hamlet; but, as an earlier exercise in theatrical delivery, the apprentice must make it successfully through a straight-faced presentation of the scientific case for spending a week in Florence. The key prop in this performance is a scientific result to present, or at least -- let's be realistic -- the potential for a scientific result. The reticent beginning student will be unable to believe that such a ploy could ever work, but the experienced student (and a PhD can be extended to such absurd lengths that students become extremely experienced) knows that this conference junket is a win-win situation for both them and their advisor. Not only is the student out of the advisor's hair for a week, but there is a fantastically high probability that the student will now finally produce some results, in some cases even as large as 8%.

Let's assume that results are indeed forthcoming. Professor and student can both relax, and look forward to the fantasy of a jet-setting lifestyle. The passport, the one piece of carry-on luggage (only amateurs check in bags), the clear plastic bag of toiletries. Set the phone to the new time zone immediately after take-off, select a pre-dinner cocktail, then carefully schedule in-flight movies and sleep to alleviate jet-lag. Yes, you're practically a high-flying business executive, or a diplomat, albeit the modest, self-effacing kind who declines First Class.

So we're off to a conference! On Thursday I'll let you know what it's like.

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