Scattered reflections on Science Online 2011 (#scio11)

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ScienceOnline 2011 is over and the daze of normality resumes. It’s hard to describe the feeling to people who have never been to the conference. Put it this way: you spend four days in a mental endurance event set in a parallel universe that’s largely similar to this one, except for the fact that all conversations are interesting.

As I said last year, ScienceOnline was a valuable chance to meet friends for the first time. It gave us a chance to take relationships that had begun on a screen and cement them in the flesh. It allowed us to trade ideas with like-minded people, and to gaze deeply into our navels so that we can do better at the things we love. As someone said on Twitter, it’s more like a family reunion than a conference.

The sessions were consistently great and the unconference format works wonders. Even when I wasn’t a panellist, I felt no less involved in the sessions I attended. (I’ll stick some write-ups later after catching up with regular blogging and I’ll collate some links to what others write.)

Some people have criticised Scio11 for selling out so quickly, with the implication that it must cater for a cliquey audience. But many of the delegates were first-timers; at least half of the people I talked to weren’t there last year. The reason why ScienceOnline is so successful is that the people who are there are the ones who really want to be. They regularly engage with the online community, they take part in discussions throughout the year, and they are ready and waiting to sign up. This doesn’t weaken the conference; it makes the conference. It creates a fantastic grassroots, everyone-mucking-in atmosphere. It’s a conference by the community for the community. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Most inspiring moment: The keynote speech from Robert Krulwich from NPR’s RadioLab, who combines storytelling, sound effects and humility into a singular type of aural poetry. Inspiring and depressing in equal measure, the talk was a great reminder of how far I have yet to go.

Biggest fanboy moment: The aforementioned Robert Krulwich (him again?) came up to me after the Friday night dinner and told me that he reads this blog and really likes it. Outside, I was the epitome of smooth gratitude. Inside: crazy happy skippy dance.

Most startling moment: During the visit to the Duke Lemur Center, I can only assume that I antagonised one of the ruffed lemurs in some way because with no warning, it started making an alarm call that sounded like a sonic nuke going off in a narrow echoing corridor. “Show us on the lemur doll where the science writer touched you…”

Best souvenir: An awesome It’s Only Rocket Science mug that Karen James bought for me from the Kennedy Space Center.

Autograph score: Three. I have signed copies of Written in Stone by Brian Switek, Superbug by Maryn McKenna and The Science of Kissing by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

Best opening line to a conversation I walked into: “Why does Chewbacca have a crossbow?”

Worst opening line to a conversation I walked into: “We’re discussing Noam Chomsky.”

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Once again, I am utterly indebted to Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker for giving me the chance to take part and for putting their blood, sweat and tears into making such an incredible event.

And finally, it was great to catch up with old friends and colleagues, to put some new faces to familiar names. For their amicable chat and great company, I thank  Carl Zimmer, SciCurious, David Dobbs, Alice Bell, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Christie Wilcox, Janet Stemwedel, John Rennie, Kaitlin Thaney, Maryn McKenna, Virginia Hughes, Steve Silberman, David Kroll, Brian Switek, Ivan Oransky, Hillary Rosner, Emily Anthes, Tom Levenson, Amos Zeeberg, Richard Grant, Jenny Rohn, Alok Jha, Liz Neeley, Arikia Millikan, DeLene Beeland, Sophia Collins, Karen James, Clifton Wiens, Kate Clancy, Seth Mnookin, Carmen Drahl, Colin Schultz, Jason Goldman, Christine Russell, Andrea Kuszewski, Olivia Koski, Hannah Waters, Craig McClain, Kevin Zelnio, Miriam Goldstein, Joanne Manaster, Marie-Claire Shanahan, John Timmer, Chris Rowan, Lucas Brouwers, Brian Mossop, Glendon Mellow, , James Hyrnyshyn, Jag Bhalla, Taylor Dobbs, Jamie Vernon, Robert Krulwich, Tyler Dukes, Catherine Anderson, Dan Ferber, Robin Lloyd, Tim de Chant, Paul Raeburn, Mark Hahnel, Scott Rosenberg, Diane Kelly, Matt Soniak, Amanda Moon, Eric Michael Johnson, Dave Mosher, John Logsdon, Nancy Shute, Zuska, Catherine Zivkovic, Chris Mooney, Peter Janiszewski, Emily Finke,Allie Wilkinson, Viv Raper, Dave Munger, Josh Rosneau, Misha Angrist, David Orr, Melody Dye, Greg Gbur, Lisa Jarvis, Holly Bik, Stacy Baker, Carin Bondar, John Hawks, Brian Malow, Mike Lisieski, Jeremy Yoder, Jim Hutchins, Psi Wavefunction, Holly Tucker, Walter Jessen, Steve Mirsky, Emily Willingham, Maia Szalavitz, Lyndell Bade, Robert Mitchum, Karyn Traphagen, Michael Barton, Pascale Lane, Jason Thibeault, Krystal D’Costa, Rhitu Chatterjee, Darlene Cavalier, Lou Woodley, Stephanie Zvan, David Shiffman and the many, many other people who I’ve undoubtedly forgotten because it’s late and I’m jetlagged. If I have forgotten you, you’re probably called Emily or John.

Photo by Lou FCD