Monday, February 04, 2013

Virtual star parties and other good stuff from Science Online 2013

by Salman Hameed

It is always a fantastic learning experience to attend ScienceOnline conferences. This was my third time attending the conference (see my posts on ScienceOnline conferences from 2010: Highest Flip-cam/Participant Ratio, and 2008: Coffee, Food and Great Conversations). While it is difficult to sign-up for the conference (it fills up its 450 slots within a few minutes of registration opening time), the operation itself is now a well-oiled and efficient machine. Especially now that it has a non-stop supply of coffee!

Couple of quick thoughts from this year's conference:

I attended a few sessions on science communication, and it was heartening to see the conversation go beyond "knowledge-deficit models" (more simply: the reason for rejection of science is simply because the public doesn't understand it or that they don't have enough knowledge). In fact, there was a whole session devoted to that, though I think they went too far in dismissing the knowledge-deficit model (I think it is a correct assumption in some cases, and we have to do a better job of assessing the multitude of ways people interact and form opinion about science). Couple of other sessions addressed similar issues and at one point there was a call for more data and sociologists at the meeting (Amen!).

The highlight for me was the Friday morning "Converge" session (you can see the whole session here - it is about an hour long). The first talk was  by Frasier Cain, on the use of Hangouts in Google+ to conduct virtual star parties. Basically, it allows everyone to have a live view of amateur telescopes located around the world. This is absolutely amazing and it has tremendous potential for global conversations (also see Cain's useful Tips and Tricks for Hangouts on Air). The success of these virtual star parties on Google+ Hangout led to a wonderful promo by Google. It was shown at the conference, and it has a bitter/sweet moment. It includes Umair Asim from Pakistan. Now if you follow this blog, you know that Umair has made some phenomenal contributions to the popularity of astronomy in Pakistan, but he is currently facing some tough times as he and his family are embroiled in blasphemy charges, and their school was burnt to the ground in late last October (see my Guardian article on Umair: Blasphemy Laws are Darkening Pakistan's Skies). In any case, with this mind, here is the Google promo:

Virtual star parties were followed by the rap of Baba Brinkman. He performed couple of songs that dealt with different concepts of evolution, and biology, in general. This is part of his Rap Guide to Evolution. Here is one on the origins of all human in Africa, I'm A African (and for a catchy-tune but with problematic Oriental tropes, you can watch the song DNA here):

The conference was as usual friendly and it was easy to strike up conversations with individuals. On the constructive criticism side of things, I was a bit disappointed that the conversations about science and science-communication were predominantly US-centered. Now, at one level, it makes sense. The conference is taking place in the US, and this is the context that most people are familiar with. However, the reach of science is now truly global and so are the conversations about science around the world. I'm not simply advocating a token session on "science in other parts of the world" but rather to have a more integrated discussion of scientific roles and perceptions across the globe - from India, Brazil and Italy to China, Thailand and Egypt - when addressing science communication.

This last point aside, it was an excellent conference and looking forward to attending more in the future. Thanks to Bora, Anton and Karyn for doing a spectacular job of organizing it and for anticipating and taking care of the needs of the participants. 

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