A Meeting in Berlin:

From July 12 through July 17 of 2008, there will be a meeting in Berlin, Germany, the XX International Congress of Genetics.  I shall not be able to go.  Last autumn I sent in a request to be able to give a little talk at the meeting.  This was an unrealistic gesture.  There was no chance that they would honor me that way. 

There are an enormous number of scientific papers, and there are an enormous number of genetics papers.  Of these, only the most interesting are selected as material for talks.  I have a number of skills, but publishing in a properly refereed journal is like pitching a no-hitter.  Many try, most fail.  And that is for big league pitchers, the best in the world at the top of their form.  The chance of an outsider doing that or even getting a chance to try is essentially zero.  Going up against the best scientists in the world, and there are only so many articles that can be published so the competition is real, is a fool’s quest.  Asking to give a talk is absurd.

On the other hand, look at the up side.  I have the computer program.  I can run it in real time.  I can show it happening, and it doesn’t take long to demonstrate the gist of the data presented on figure 1 of the web site.  What is more, I was willing to give out free copies of the program.  I cannot offer them to the general public, because it is a very demanding program.  This room contains several computers I have destroyed while developing the subject.  One, to my utter shame, a computer failed but continued to deliver results.  After 10 repetitions, I decided that the results were valid and submitted what thought I had found as a paper to a properly refereed journal.  The editor was delighted and said he had sent the paper to a referee. 

I went back to work to refine my calculations.  It was then, a few days after my submission, that I realized to my horror that the computer simply was not doing what it was being told to do.  I moved quickly to retract the paper, but the editor had already sent a note saying he had changed his mind and was not submitting that paper to the referee because it was, “Not of sufficiently generally interest.”  

So I had in the past offered copies of the program to well funded and well staffed professionals, who could be expected to have experts able to handle it safely them safely and would be able to replace hardware that was cooked in the line of duty.

And very importantly I would be able to take challenges as to just what the program was doing.  If someone thought one of my runs was a movie simulation of actual calculations, it would be a simple matter to repeat the run many times and see that the results were always different.  (That is true for practical purposes, although it is not absolutely true for technical reasons.) 

Such things used to be done.  At the meetings of the Royal Society in London, it was not unheard of for a scientist, or natural philosopher as the name then was, to present his results and then have the equipment there and show what he had.  That is the kind of thing that cannot be done over the internet.  You must be there in person.  And as for handing out the equipment for the others to repeat the experiment, I have never heard of it before.  But again, you have to be there. 

In fact, there wouldn’t seem to be that much reason to have a meeting otherwise.  The contents of a talk or poster are far more easily spread by the internet.  But demonstrating a repeat of an experiment in real time is far more difficult.  O I think I could do it.  I could set up the program on my own computer and anyone interested could call it up and begin pressing buttons.  And perhaps some day I shall do just that, assuming I can get the right technical support. 

Although they did not break all rules of precedence and good sense and give me a platform to work from, they were kind enough to offer me a chance to present a poster. 

Well I have tried that.  Two years ago in a similar international meeting in Brisbane, Australia, I demonstrated what I had at that point as a poster.  So far as I could tell at the time, it was not a very impressive presentation.  One serious problem was that I had no table.  In order to run the computer, I had to get down on my hands and knees.  I think most of the people I showed it to, and there were many, took home, “There was this weird guy with a computer, and he actually got down on the floor to try to show me something.”  I can’t blame them, really.

Computers get smaller and more powerful, and within a very few years I am sure it will be possible to have a laptop computer than can simply be hung on the wall as part of a poster and that has sufficient cooling ability so as to be able to handle the computations without its brain frying.  So far as I know, that day is not quite yet.

So I was reluctant to go to Berlin just to spend a week crawling around at people’s feet. 

Sadly, I was so eager to go to Berlin that I submitted my abstract very early.  Between the time the thing was submitted and the time decisions were made the Iceland study became available.  I could have made a much stronger case in my abstract if I had been able to refer to that study.  But the end result would have been the same.

I am not that proud.  I think if I could, there is a good chance that I would go there even at the cost of doing 5 days on all 4’s.  But things changed at work here, so I will be needed during the days in question. 

Sure, given a chance to talk, I would have gone.  After all, when I submitted the abstract I effectively made a promise, and I would have kept that promise.

There has been another change.  5 years ago at the genetics meeting in Melbourne, I presented a poster.  Some day I hope to post it here.  It begins with the results of Mesopotamian history shown on figure 10 and ends with a plea that the proper study be done in Iceland.  The deal then on offer was, “Look.  I have highly suggestive evidence here.  Please use your skills and get to the bottom of it.”  Now the deal is simpler, “Here is the truth.”  I could hardly believe that people could shrug and walk away when offered the adventure of a lifetime, but they did.  I can well understand how anyone could shrug now.  I have taken all the fun out of it, like a rock climber who has climbed a popular, dangerous but untamed cliff face, and while he was there drove spikes into it to make it easy for anybody else.  That is now considered bad form in rock climbing, but it is standard for science. 

So I shall not crawl to Germany.  If you go there yourself, poster A-065-0016-00039 will be blank. 

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