Dispatches From the Field
AAAS 2000 Annual Meeting

Entering the Science Mosh Pit - Feb. 18, 2000

By Mary K. Miller

Information PictureIt's day one of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference and I've already spotted a famous scientist: Stephen Schneider, climatologist and global warming guru from Stanford. There are 4000 scientists, educators, and policymakers here, along with 1000 press people, populating the largest annual scientific meeting in the world.

The Exploratorium web crew is also here in Washington to cover the action. We'll post stories, sounds and pictures from the scientific talks and also give you a behind the scenes peek of the culture of this huge event. Science is not just about making discoveries and publishing papers; the process also includes conferences, business deals, and a fair amount of socializing. Like all social groups, there are great friendships and rivalries among scientists: arguing and schmoozing go hand in hand.

Since we're in Washington, there are also some political machinations here. Rumor is that Al Gore wanted to speak, but since he's in the middle of a presidential campaign, AAAS brass invited U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright instead. I'm excited to see in person the highest-ranking woman in our government.

The title of this meeting is "Science in an Uncertain Millennium." It seems rather tentative (can a millennium be uncertain?), but it's probably in deference to AAAS president and renowned evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould who posits that we aren't in a new millennium at least until next year or even six years from now.

Registration pictureDuring the six days of the conference, there will be 140 scientific sessions with more than 500 speakers. The catalog that describes the sessions and lists the abstracts (brief summaries of the talks) is nearly 300 pages long. By the end of the conference, it'll be dog-eared, highlighted and scribbled on-that is if I don't lose it. It's a touch task to choose what to attend, and always disheartening when you hear from a colleague about the great talk you missed. Fortunately, they sell cassette tapes of the sessions so you can at least hear

Unlike many meetings, AAAS isn't specialized to one branch of science, such as neurology or astronomy. Instead, there are geologists rubbing elbows with molecular biologists, physicists chatting with psychologists. It's a multidisciplinary stew that attracts newspaper, radio, and TV reporters from all over the world. There's always some grumbling that real news is hard to find here (most discoveries are announced at the specialty meetings, not AAAS), but much of what is presented here is very interesting science and great for finding potential sources for the rolodex and gathering background for future stories.

Besides filing stories, the journalists also have their own agenda. It's the largest gathering of writers and reporters in the world, and a chance to schmooze with old friends and rivals. Much of that happens in the press coffee room, but there are also parties and receptions where free food and drinks are in abundance. There are 20 AAAS receptions and five journalist gatherings with an artery-clogging array of pastries, cheese nibbles, and meat trays to feed the hungry press.

So come along with us as we hang out at AAAS. If you have questions of comments about our coverage, send them to aaas@exploratorium.edu.

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