One great thing about being at a conference on a press pass is people want to buy you food. You can literally go the entire day without buying anything for yourself if that's how you roll. Breakfasts - check. Coffee - check. Lunch - well, I am not much of a lunch guy but I suppose I could get the proverbial free lunch in the way of a literal one. Dinner could at least be bar food.
I missed start of the Helmholtz Association Press Breakfast and hate to show up late and be that guy so I opted for hotel fare instead - that's an adequate penalty for not watching the clock. Not that it was bad but $13 for two eggs and two pieces of bacon feels wrong, especially when the Pancake House near the convention center is something for science like The Lion&Compass in Sunnyvale has been to high technology - where all the big deals get done.
I stopped in at the AAAS press room and got some free coffee and then it was off to science. Like every other day it is difficult to spend time at the full symposium unless there is really something of value. I knew "Can Geoengineering Save Us From Global Warming?" would be controversial so it merited some time.
Geo-engineering is easier to make fun of than take seriously, given what we actually know about the climate system - not much, other than that too much pollution is bad, despite what some of the more ridiculous objectors to the notion that humans can have any impact on the planet maintain. And scientists don't always help the cause by advancing their own agendas despite objections. German-based LOHAFEX did not like my hammering them for their insistence that large experiments to dump iron sulphate in the ocean, which they hypothesize would create an algal bloom and suck a lot of evil carbon down into the bottom of the ocean, were a bad idea despite the fact that 191 signators to the United Nation's Convention on Biological Diversity, including Germany, forbade it. They did it anyway because their science was more important than using some caution.
Really big sunglasses sound like fun but it isn't a serious idea and that goes for a lot of geo-engineering ideas on the table. If we can't figure out the weather a week from now, mucking around with geo-engineering is one of those instances where I am going to side with conservative environmental types who think that it's better to compile a lot more data before we roll those dice.
"50 Years of Exobiology&Astrobiology" was more to my liking because I have been fascinated with it since Dave Deamer started writing on it. Dave and I exchanged some email about a conference on that topic in April and also doing a science writing seminar at UCSC some time this spring. I love doing that sort of talk - scientists' enthusiasm for knowledge is obvious to all of you and that even applies to learning things that may be out of the scientist mental 'sweet spot', like talking to a broad audience about their research.
50 years of astrobiology bookmarks nicely with the "SETI turns 50" talk tomorrow, where Frank Drake and others will discuss what we have accomplished in that time. The flippant answer is 'not much' and I have made plenty of jokes about instead joining WETI ('just wait long enough and aliens will find us') because it has had perfect success to-date but I secretly like big, bold projects that don't require government funding.
Will it ever work? I don't know, but every year or two Sacramento inventor Paul Moller and his flying car get attention and funding all over again so others must feel like it is making progress and so it goes with SETI.
As Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison wrote over 50 years ago in Nature, which likely inspired much of the SETI work, "The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search the chance of success is zero."
What has physics done for you lately? "Particles and People: How Basic Physics Benefits Society" is getting its own article so I won't dwell on it here. But lost in all the fuzzy-wuzzy talk research for research's sake and hype about high energy physics and the upcoming discovery of whatever the Higgs may be (one thing, 5 things, supersymmetry with a universe of new things? A Standard Model? Newton still kicks ass? Insert your guess here) there is some basic research work that has value right now even in times of tight budgets.
I went back to the AAAS room and spoke briefly with a Wall Street Journal columnist (I don't recall the name because men in America are taught not to look at the chests of women unless expressly invited so I did not get her name, just in conversation that she wrote for them) who asked if I was going to the briefing on music and the brain.
A little too fluffy for me, I said, but would Wall Street Journal readers want that? She didn't know, she said, but she had a column and could write about whatever she wanted. This is an instance where the big journalism mentality made sense to me. The Wall Street Journal, unlike the New York Times, is well-written and does not pander to one side of the political spectrum ... and it's profitable appealing to both political parties. If a Wall Street Journal writer thinks it has merit, maybe it does. And I had an hour to kill before lunch.
She turned out to be absolutely correct and Did Music Evolve Before Language? came from that. So, thanks, Wall Street Journal writer, for convincing me to go outside the physics-biology box and find some good stuff.
I didn't get a lot out of the afternoon. Unlike last year, where I had delightful surprises like sitting next to Dave Deamer in a seminar on religion and scientists and later watching him on an A-Team panel discussing evolution understanding, or spying Nobel Laureate and Scientific Blogging guest columnist Carl Wieman looking over student posters, there were no big surprises so far. Besides Fred Phillips and I, there was no one from SB there. The posters were a letdown too. If there was even one on physics, I couldn't find it.
But there are social aspects that make up for an afternoon of weak content. Here is Bloggy hamming it up with "Physics of the Buffyverse" and Cocktail Party Physics author Jennifer Ouellette (1), 2009 AAAS Science Journalism Award Recipient and Discover blogger Carl Zimmer and hula hooping, TKD black-belt wearing, radio show producing physiologist Kirsten Sanford.
Jennifer Ouellette, Carl Zimmer, Kirsten 'Dr. Kiki' Sanford and Bloggy. Bloggy is in the middle.
None of these are well-known scientists but they are well-known science writers so at least the writing community is out in force. The number I got was 1,000 press passes at this event, so 20% of the attendees were press. Now, some of those were PIOs (Public Information Officers, a nicer term for public relations) and many were 'freelance' but if they are spending their money to come, there must be a reason - reaffirming that science writing is not dead, even if big media science journalism is on life support
At 6 PM was a social event sponsored by Pathway Genomics, a company that does those gene tests biologists hate, but they put on a nice spread and I had a chance to talk with Linda Wasserman and my first question for her was whether or not they disclosed the APOE results.
If you are not aware, APOE-e4 on chromosome 19 is one of four genes associated with Alzheimer's Disease so when
Craig Venter had his genome sequenced he originally chose not to disclose to the public that he had one copy of that gene (EDIT: A reader noted for me I am incorrect in my belief that Venter did not disclose it at first and then revealed it in his autobiography) while Steven Pinker chose not to know at all.
It seems to be the big controversial topic in these home tests but Wasserman said that most every company uses a questionnaire to screen out what people don't want to know about themselves and the biggest job she has is to explain to concerned people what a risk factor is and what it is not. Well, that's a good point - we all know what it is but if the public is confused, that article needs to be written, so we agreed to collaborate on an article covering risk factors in the near future.
I also had a chance to share a beer with Bora Zivkovic who, like everyone at Scienceblogs, seems to have a real name, a handle (Coturnix) and then a blog name, like Blog Around The Clock. It can be confusing. No one calls me "Science 2.0", for example, I am just Hank.
It's always interesting to get perspectives on our site from other prominent bloggers. We are pretty modest about what we do and how well we do it. Carl Zimmer said he has read us for years, he said, while Chris Mooney I am certain has no interest in us at all and Scienceblogs writers really, truly and unequivocally feel like they are just better than everyone else - and it shows in how they talk to others.
Well, are they better? If traffic is your metric, P.Z. Myers alone has as much traffic as we do every month so Scienceblogs wins the 'better' contest there. But if I ask regular folks who just read science, I get a lot of 'you are better' comments about us too. And I have to take a million readers over a few hundred science bloggers who either write on one site, or secretly want to.
6:30 PM was Erik Lander giving a plenary lecture on how awesome Barack Obama is for science, a type of talk that, it must be noted, was not given even once when a Republican Congress and Republican President doubled the budget for the NIH and reversed a net decrease for NASA during the previous Democratic administration into a 15% increase. All that scientists remember from that period is that the money eventually stopped, so it was all apparently invalidated, and all scientists in that room seem to remember today is the campaign of 2008. After a half hour of hope when people are losing homes and our deficit this year is more than the entire economy of India, I had to leave.
More money does not equal better science or let's just go ahead and cure cancer. Obama will have the biggest re-election landslide in history if he does that. Who could vote against the President who cured cancer?
(1) Kim saw the picture of Bloggy with Jen and later on the phone said she was happy about that because "she is my favorite blogger."
"Ahem?" was all I could choke out.
"Well, my favorite outside Scientific Blogging. You should recruit her. I'll bake her cookies."
So now Jen knows if she ever decides to jump ship, there's not only some money in it for her but also delicious baked goods. I really can't say enough about the baked goods. I am sure I have put on ten pounds since we got married.