The demise of the AAAS meetings have been rumored for as long as the nearly 20 years I’ve been attending them and probably even before then. Journalists grump that there’s not enough breaking news, scientists say not enough of their colleagues attend, organizers fret that the registration numbers are flat even as other more specialized science meetings have mushroomed in recent years. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about this year’s conference rehashes the old debate, with no news of its own to contribute.
But I love AAAS, for its science celebrities, its smorgasborg of different disciplines, its parties and networking opportunities, and the meeting’s focus on science policy and public engagement. The organizers take all these things seriously and the results are a unique cross-roads of science and society that seem ever more relevant to those of us who love research and want to share it with our audiences. I collect business cards, brainstorm new ideas with colleagues, recruit scientists to visit and give talks at the Exploratorium, and dance at the annual science writer party (this being Boston it was held at Fenway Park with a fantastic Motown cover band).
This year I got to see, if not shake hands with, Ken Miller of Brown (one of the witnesses in the victorious evolution trials of Dover, Pennsylvania and recipient of the Exploratorium’s outstanding educator award), Barry Barrish (founding directors of LIGO and now heading up the troubled but not abandoned International Linear Collider), Lawrence Krauss (theoretical physicist and author of “The Physics of Star Trek”), Dan Gilbert (Harvard psychology professor, author of Stumbling on Happiness and son of Walter Gilbert, who we interviewed during our DNA webcasts), and Andy Revkin (NYTimes climate reporter and blogger).
I attended sessions on the climate history of the Arctic, global warming and the media, memory and imagination, gigantic international physics collaborations, and science in a religious America. The latter was organized by our friend Matthew Nisbet of American University and he put together a stellar panel of folks in the large middle ground of the debate where most people live. Matt and the panelists don’t feel that religion undermines science, and argued that both can co-exist in modern society, if not the hearts and minds of some scientists and Catholics. Of course that means he’s attacked by people on the edges: the “new atheists” who feel that religious thought should never be tolerated, but rather should be campaigned against by the educated (their words) and religious fundamentalists and politicians who say that accepting evolution means that humans have no moral foundation on which to stand. All did agree that Intelligent Design isn’t based on evidence and therefor isn’t science and that only evolution should be taught in biology classrooms. So that is the bright shining line that even tolerant scientists won’t tolerate.