Perks of the Job
I’ve often heard it said that conferences are an excuse to have an expensive jolly, and justify it to the management. Too right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Last week we were in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. This is probably the biggest meeting we’ve been to, with something like 10,000 participants across all of the earth and planetary sciences. I reckon there were only a few hundred palaeontologists there, but that’s still a sizeable gathering (does anyone know the collective noun for palaeontologists? I dread to think…). For four days we mingled, muttered, harangued and bought drinks for each other, and we might even have learned something – all at the expense of a research grant (we used to pay for it ourselves, but now we live in luxury we can afford perhaps one of these per year). So how can we possibly justify jetting off to the other side of the world, staying in a hotel (well, hostel in our case) and eating in restaurants every night (well, most of them)?
Conferences are all about communication and collaboration. At a good conference, I am always amazed by what is achieved. Attending a conference in principle entails sitting down and listening to people present their work in 15-minute slots, from 8 in the morning until 5 at night, and slotting in the poster sessions between and after. In reality, there’s a lot more to it. There are times when the talks are really not relevant, and you go and talk to someone instead, but for much of the time you’re being presented with work that you otherwise wouldn’t read in paper form. In the process, you end up seeing all sorts of things that are relevant to you obliquely, or ideas that you can apply. For example, I saw a talk about the preservation of shell beds that showed that the most important aspect controlling what’s in them is not how much has been destroyed before burial, but rather how much mixing has gone on between the fossils from slightly different times. I don’t normally get to work on shell beds, but it’s an interesting idea regardless; it also matches what we see in modern bugs, where population proportions change dramatically from year to year. It’s one of many things we’re going to have to take into account in future.
If you’re going to a conference, you really ought to present. Firstly, a big part of the justification for going is that you are making your research accessible, and provides a stiff challenge to your results and reasoning: it’s an alternative to writing papers in a sense, although obviously it can never replace a permanent, published record of your ideas. Both of us gave talks this time, and they both went down surprisingly well – it must have been the quaint accents that did it. Lucy was talking about a comparison of three sites with soft-bodied fossils from the Early Ordovician (two of them new), and the announcement of new Lagerstätten always attracts attention. Her “exciting discoveries” were even mentioned in another talk on the last day, which is always nice – you know the message is getting through at that point. Mine was about early sponges, and how virtually everything that we think we know about them is probably wrong. It seems to have raised a few eyebrows, and one person made the “quotation mark” gesture when talking to me about hexactinellids, so again, the message obviously got through in some cases. This dispersal of ideas is crucial because hardly anyone works on sponges. Hopefully now some of the people who are seeing them in the field will have an idea of what might be important; aside from anything else, I had a few offers of collaborative projects across the world, and that can’t be bad.
Conference presentations also have the advantage that you can present ideas and discussions that are more speculative than the normal – things that might struggle with peer review, say. There was a wonderful example of that in Minneapolis, by Mark McMenamin (famed for his off-the-wall interpretations). In this case, he was interpreting a death assemblage of ten huge ichthyosaurs as being the result of predation by a Triassic Kraken. An apparently non-random arrangement of vertebrae in the remains he interpreted as being a deliberate, symbolic representation of its sucker array – the only non-human self-portrait in the fossil record. Now, I’m not saying that he’s right, but as he pointed out, cephalopods do have a high level of intelligence and are quite capable of catching things like sharks (e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cA8zQw6gDNI). There’s also no doubt that ten big ichthyosaurs in one place, somewhere on the seabed off the coast, takes some explaining, and none of the previously suggested answers appear to work. Personally, I think it’s plausible… but that’s not really the point. This is what conferences can do – they present new ideas, new scenarios and new debates, and force us to think about them, no matter how daft they might first appear. Putting all those people in one place, for an intense few days of arguments and revelations, can’t help but lead to advances in the science.
So it’s not just a jolly. But yes, it is fabulous fun, and it means we get to see places we wouldn’t otherwise go. Lucy’s now back in China, and about to go on fieldwork in Guizhou, but I’ve stayed on in North America and am now in Toronto to work on the Burgess Shale sponges. More about that in a bit.
Saturday, 15 October 2011
Perks of the Job