There’s Not a Word Yet For Old Friends Who’ve Just Met

Stegosaurus...in space! Artwork by the amazing Katy Chalmers.

As I mentioned last week, I spent a few days at the Science Online 2012 conference, which ended up being a terrible experience I never want to repeat.

Actually, the last part of that sentence is a total lie. Science Online 2012 is the best professional conference I’ve ever attended. To summarize: 450 people generally falling into the category of “science communication on the internet” got together in Raleigh, North Carolina to talk about our shared passion(s). For example, I moderated a session with my friend Cedar Riener about the challenge of communicating statistics across disciplines; stay tuned for a more detailed post about that later. For now, I want to talk about my other experiences, including some discoveries and resolutions that might affect the future of this blog. (Dunh dunh DUNH!)

The topics that follow are more or less in the order I experienced them.

  • When I arrived, Katy Chalmers gave me the picture on the right. Admittedly, I commissioned it as a joke on Twitter, but who can turn down such a classic piece of art? (By the way, we are currently collaborating on a Sooper Seekrit Science Comic. Which I guess isn’t so Sooper Seekrit now that I mention it.)
  • Though I am no longer paid to be a teacher, talking about and explaining science is really what I’m about. Marie-Claire Shanahan and Catherine Anderson led a session about scientific literacy using the sport of curling (which most of us didn’t know much about) as a metaphor. Jargon can be off-putting, but explaining the jargon in the course of teaching the concepts welcomes people into the fold of expertise.
  • Janet Stemwedel and Christie Wilcox led a session about the specific issues women bloggers often face: harassment, threats, and dismissal of their ideas and credentials. It bothered me to learn how many people (both men and women) assumed it would just be a complaining session and dismissed it outright. Obviously the issue of sexism, sexual harassment, and intimidation is much too big for an hour-long discussion, and the people in the room were obviously not the problem. However, as someone phrased it (and I apologize for not remembering who said it), “Just because you aren’t part of the problem doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the solution.”
  • (Most of) the editorial staff for Double X Science: me, Jeanne Garbarino, and Emily Willingham. (Photo by the excellent Russ Creech.)

    I finally got to meet some of my fellow Double X Science cohort! Emily Willingham (AKA Our Fearless Leader) and Jeanne Garbarino are every bit as awesome in person as I expected from our online conversations.

  • Jennifer Ouellette and Maggie Koerth-Baker signed copies of their books for me, but don’t expect me to go easy on them when I review the books here! I cannot be bribed. (Actually, I totally can. Both authors are wonderful people, so I’m already inclined to like both books. I hope you acquire, read, and love them too.)
  • I know Bora Zivkovic makes a big deal about how we are all equals at this conference, but let’s face it: some bloggers like me are pretty small-time, and others (Ed Yong comes to mind) are veritable rock stars within the science blogging community. In other words, I know who they are, but they hardly know who I am. It was easy to be star-struck for a newbie like me, and I was thinking of listing everyone I met and talking about how great they are. However, I suspect many of my readers wouldn’t be interested and I’d almost inevitably fail to mention someone I should. In fact, I think there were only two “rock stars” I met that (politely) brushed me off; everyone else was very kind.
  • My online identity is tied in with my “real life” identity, meaning that I use my real name and photo in the projects I write for. Others do it differently, for a variety of reasons. I was thrilled to meet Steve of Treelobsters fame, the force of nature known as Scicurious, Bug Girl (who made me laugh harder than anyone else I met at the conference), and the irrepressible Dr. Rubidium, putting faces and (at least partial) names to the pseudonyms. Though he isn’t pseudonymous, I also got to meet my editor at Ars Technica, John Timmer, in real life for the first time.
  • Though none of the sessions were bad, my personal favorite was led by Deborah Blum and David Dobbs. They spoke about how they structure long-form stories using metaphors that are tailor-made for me. Deborah spoke about how she visualizes stories using geometric shapes, selecting the form that’s most evocative for the particular article she is writing, while David connected the structure of stories to musical pieces by Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Led Zeppelin. As a musician and scientist whose research involves geometry, I could not have been more inspired by this session. I also faced the fact that I need a lot of improvement in my writing. To quote David Dobbs, “I became obsessed with structure years ago when I realised I wasn’t using it.” (I’m using the British spelling because the quote was collected by Ed Yong.) I will muse on this point in a future post, I think.
  • Exit, pursued by an Acrocanthosaurus a tyrannosaur. (Photo by Greg Gbur, caption corrected by Mr. Dinosaur himself, Brian Switek.)

    To continue the practical theme, I also attended a workshop led by Brian Switek and Hillary Rosner on the freelance life. (I met Brian last spring at the DC Science Writers Workshop, so it was great to hang out with him again.) Their advice was very sound, and I intend to take it: be more assertive in selling yourself and your ideas. So, I will be working on my book proposal this week and a pitch for a magazine story.

I’m wrapping up now, less because I’m done than because I could double the length of the post and still not reveal every thought I have. Ed Yong and Emily Willingham both have written excellent (and shorter!) pieces that express more of what made this conference wonderful. To quote the song in my title one more time, Science Online was close to my soul, and I’m going to go back there someday.

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11 Responses to “There’s Not a Word Yet For Old Friends Who’ve Just Met”


  1. 1 David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs) January 24, 2012 at 09:20

    Nicely done, and it rings true to my experience of ScienceOnline — that fine but funny feeling of meeting old friends for the first time. It shows both the tremendous connective power that online acquaintance and friendship can have — and the unmatched power of face-to-face connection to solidify and enrich those synapses.

    Plus we got to see your hat.

    Thanks for coming, and I’m especially glad the structure session proved so useful for you.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis January 24, 2012 at 09:29

      It was good to meet you briefly, and thank you again for your wonderful session. I’m thinking of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus as inspirations for story structures. We’ll see how well I can translate your lessons into practice! As I mentioned in the piece, I’m thinking more and more about expanding into long-form writing, so you, Deborah, Brian, and Hillary were particularly inspirational.

  2. 3 David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs) January 24, 2012 at 10:20

    Monk & Mingus — can’t go wrong.

  3. 4 David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs) January 24, 2012 at 10:24

    Now you got me thinking: I need to closely check out some Mingus compositions as specific models for possible story forms. That guy *composed.* Ima cue up Porkpie right now.

    • 5 Matthew R. Francis January 24, 2012 at 11:50

      I was definitely thinking of Mingus as composer. He used long melodic phrases (as in Porkpie), a lot of tension between instruments, and often would have several movements within a single jazz piece. (Can you tell I’m a jazz geek?)

  4. 6 mcshanahan January 24, 2012 at 10:53

    It was great to meet you. So sorry that you and Cedar and I didn’t have a chance to sit down and chat more. I really enjoyed your session though. I teach stats to grad students who have mostly avoided it and I left feeling really inspired about how to make it meaningful. Thanks to both of you.
    And I LOVE the tyrannosaur pic! :)

    • 7 Matthew R. Francis January 24, 2012 at 11:53

      It was great to meet you too! I think there were too many people to spend much time talking to any single cool person, alas – I found myself thinking “I really need to talk to so-and-so more” several times during the conference. However, there’s always the internet. :)

  5. 8 Brian Switek January 24, 2012 at 12:05

    A wonderful summary, and it was great to catch up with you again, Matt. I enjoyed having someone else there who knew the wonder of Stegosaurus thagomizers.

    Just one thing… you are being pursued by an Acrocanthosaurus in that photo. They’re tricky buggers. :)

    • 9 Matthew R. Francis January 24, 2012 at 12:13

      Ah bugger, got that one wrong. Now that you mention it, I remember it. I blame still being in recovery.

      My love for stegosaurus is a totally uncritical love, held over from childhood. I am unashamed of that love.

  6. 10 megan January 24, 2012 at 13:20

    curling! I love curling (we have at least 3 curling clubs here in MI)! You should really watch Men With Brooms, it’s a classic, eh?


  1. 1 The never-ending adventure that is life « Galileo's Pendulum Trackback on January 30, 2013 at 15:34
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