Friday, September 12, 2008

Post-Symposium Reflections

Some of my reflections and experiences following attendance at a two-day international symposium in conjunction with the Kavli lectures here in Trondheim:


Of the Kavli Laureates present, only one gave a true science lecture at this symposium. The guy who didn't happens to be one of the absolute major players within my field. I mean absolutely no disrespect towards the laureate who actually gave a talk - mad props to Prof. Iijima - when I say that it major-league sucked that Louis Brus didn't talk here.

There are people - giants among men - who have repeatedly demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are absolute, irrevocably, reproducibly brilliant. Their work has proven to be of paramount importance both to the academic community AND to the "real" world through practical applications of their findings. Brilliant as they are, they still can't present their work worth a damn. Regrettable as that may be, I still think it's unreasonable to hold that against them. Not everyone is good at doing the show-and-tell aspect of public speaking, but a far smaller percentage has the skill and tenacity required to contribute to major technological advancements.

The other side of the coin is that if your audience hasn't bothered to read your published work, a good (or even a mediocre-plus) scientist with dazzling stage presence and well-made slides appears much more impressive than the brilliant yet absent-minded Albert Einstein-like guy who shows up with four slides filled with illegible equations and a poor command of audience and the English language. The latter is absolute crucial; if you speak English with a heavy accent (not native to an English-speaking country), you are at a serious disadvantage. If you lack a decent vocabulary, it's even worse. If on top of that you're uncomfortable with facing an audience, you're much better off staying at home, unless you're specifically aiming to gauge and improve all of these aspects and view the conference/symposium/workshop as a training experience.

The traditional way of doing science has been on beaker-scale. Now, it's more and more becoming a game of microliters, and it's approaching sample sizes of tens of microns for more and more types of experiments. Which is cool for many reasons, one of which is a serious reduction in waste from R&D. The flip side of the coin: Going to micron scale for sample volumes is followed by hyooge cost increases, which further taxes budgets. Seeing as how the amount of money put into research and science isn't exactly skyrocketing, at least not here in Norway, there's an escalating mismatch between the available funds, the realistic scientific output and the "moon landings" which are expected by the governing bodies. Needless to say, that kinda' poses a problem.

Academics are extremely adept at hand-waving their way past legitimate scientific questions from peers. One of the time-tested tricks following an unexpected or hard question is to answer something like this: "That's a very interesting question, Sir/Madam - as a matter of fact, we're working on that exact problem right now in our group. Unfortunately I didn't bring any data to show you." Dollars to donuts you'll see that type of data published by some other research group 1-2 years before anything of the sort emerges from the guy who claimed they were working on it.

How come it's possible for a Professor to exceed his allotted 45 minute talk with 15 minutes and still having 10-15 slides left to show inthe talk? That right there screams hard-core arrogance, and/or epic lack of time management. One of these explanations is more plausible than the other - take your pick.

Still on the topic of arrogance; one big name started his talk - on plasmonics - by stating that to the best of his knowledge, no Norwegian scientists were working within this field. Which kinda' pissed me off, seeing as how that's what I do. Still, I realize that I'm way too fresh off the academic banana boat for a bigshot such as this guy to have noticed and amassed my publications. It was way worse for a Norwegian physics professor in attendance, seeing as how he's worked with this for more than 20 years and he has the publications and h-factor to prove it - now HE looked more than a trifle perturbed. Both of us were quite eager to ask this bigshot some questions following his talk, but because his presentation dragged way past his allotted time, we never got the opportunity. The physics professor left quite shortly after this. The funny thing is that if the bigshot had bothered to READ THE PROGRAM for the symposium or had bothered to check out the posters hanging right outside the auditorium, he'd have noticed that there were two posters being presented on plasmonics work by Norwegian scientists.

11 comments:

Anders said...

It's actually a sign of real arrogance to go 15 minutes over a 45 min talk. That's the kind of error you might do on your first presentation. It's also really bad not to hang around for questions after the presentation, especially when there was no time for a Q&A session. It's not like the dude didn't have time; after all he came to Norway just for this symposium.

The funny thing is that if the bigshit had bothered to READ THE PROGRAM for the symposium...

Freudian slip there, W.?
:-D

Wilhelm said...

It's actually a sign of real arrogance to go 15 minutes over a 45 min talk.

...and then still having 10+ slides to go...

Ya think?

Freudian slip there, W.?

Who knows....

Pigeon said...

he'd have noticed that there were two posters being presented on pasmonics work by Norwegian scientists.
That's because you have a german name bro !!!

Wilhelm said...

....sure I do.

What about Sondre?

Pigeon said...

...sure I do.

What about Sondre?


Who cares about Sondre anyway ?

Wilhelm said...

..way to make someone feel special there, brah' :-)

Anders said...

Who cares about Sondre anyway ?

...somebody is developing an inferiority complex due the history of getting thoroughly and utterly beating in the guitar quiz...
:-D

Anders said...

...a good (or even a mediocre-plus) scientist with dazzling stage presence and well-made slides appears much more impressive than the brilliant yet absent-minded Albert Einstein...

I've found my niche! I only need to get my slide show act together. And pump up my sciences a notch.
:-D

Wilhelm said...

..start performing with glittery jumpsuits and two white tigers

Anders said...

..start performing with glittery jumpsuits and two white tigers

Are you saying that I got the 80's haircut and gay look nailed, so all I'm missing is the jumpsuit and tigers?

Wilhelm said...

...I'm saying that? Man am I ever an eloquent mofo :-)