[personal profile] twostatesystem
I haven't posted in ages—well, internet ages—as I've been on vacation, home in a blur, at a conference, visiting a college friend and finally home again. I'm also working on a post about coming to terms with my classism that I've had in the rock tumbler for a month now, but still has raw pointy bits all over it.

That said, conferences! I was at a conference last week and halfway through I was wondering what the hell I was doing there in the age of the internet, the arxiv*, and email. I'd flown across the Atlantic to sit in a soporific room for ten hours a day (no, really.) and listen to stuff I could've found on the arxiv. Furthermore, three members of my collaboration had flown to three different parts of the world in the past week to give virtually identical talks to three different conferences. This seems like a waste of resources.

But, as with all things, I realized that conferences are not about the talks. Well, they are, sort of. Talks are basically advertisements as to who'll be the interesting person to talk to at the next coffee/meal break. The worthwhileness of the conference lies mostly in the conversations one has in between talks, and by that measure, this one was quite good. I had several productive dialogues about dark matter distributions, technology, and theory with people I'd never heard of before, got a couple new ideas, and ate foreign candy bars**.

Which got me to thinking, if the purpose of conferences is this kind of serendipity, why doesn't it happen as much on the internet? I mean, after all, the internet is the place for wandering in and finding stuff you'd never thought about before. Why do we need the face time?

I think it's because it's not just serendipity, it's focused serendipity. It's restricting the flow of information to a certain trickle. And then, I went "aha!". This is a lot like one of my favorite Feministe features, Sunday Self-Promotion, which is a weekly post for people to advertise particular posts they've written to a larger audience...and a great way for that audience to stumble on things they might otherwise miss in the noise of the great big internet.

All this makes me wonder if there's some way to facilitate the same among physicists on the internet. (Not to get rid of conferences. I think face time is valuable for many reasons other than serendipity!) The arxiv is already, in a sense, Daily Self-Promotion, but it lacks the dialogue and focus aspects that make conferences and Sunday Self-Promotion more worthwhile. Yet comments on arxiv papers seems like a bad idea from a practical standpoint.

Maybe there's not a way to do this for the scientific community on the internet. But I bet there is, and I bet it'll develop in the next five years. And I'm surely looking forward to it.

*The clearinghouse for physics papers. It's the greatest thing to happen to science publishing since the printing press.
**I adore eating candy bars in foreign countries. It's such a delightfully random experience. It has a penguin on it? Who knows what it'll contain!
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