Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Of cans and worms

Posted by on 06/17 at 01:45 PM If anyone had dropped an explosive device onto the Chemical Heritage Foundation last Friday or Saturday, the current history of chemistry would have suffered tragic losses: some of the major players in the field gathered at a conference (“Composition to Commerce: Chemistry, History, and the Wider World”) to discuss how we write the history of chemistry, why we do it the way we do, and where the field is going.

Do I hear a yawn in the cheap seats at the back? Well, picture the scene: this conference left ample time for discussion, and discuss the participants did. There were musings about terminologies and methodologies; proposals for new research areas and dismissals of established ones; humming and hawing all around. And there were heated discussions (someone dubbed them ‘academic cat fights’) between peers-turned-contestants-for-the-sake-of-the-argument. You want details? A lady never tells (or, as the German idiom has it: a lady enjoys silently). Other conference attendees around me were at first shocked or at least startled by the heated arguments (which, needless to say, remained well on the side of the factual and polite), but then increasingly fascinated by the debates.

So, outside the scope of this particular conference (and note how I get away with saying practically nothing about its contents? Bow to the masteress, people, bow to the, um, mistress(?!)), discussion at the point of confrontation does not seem to be common, or even commonly accepted. Many a conference passes with pre-written papers, read from the sheet, a couple of questions which tell you more about the ego (or perceived academic power) or the asker than they dig into the subject matter, with a hoard of tired listeners nodding off in their uncomfortable seats. Yawn, indeed. I, for one, love seeing people connect over a topic they are passionate about – even if that connection carries some disagreement. How else do we get those little wheels in our brains going beyond their well-oiled mechanisms?

Actually, I’d be almost offended if someone disagreed with my theories, heard me present at a conference and did not voice an opinion contrary to mine – unless, of course, I convinced him or her that mine is a valid approach, too. But otherwise, not commenting makes a statement: that I am not being taken seriously; that challenging my theories will come across as a personal attack; that, in any event, not commenting keeps the worms firmly in the can. Speaking for myself: I’d rather have worms everywhere than get into a mental rut. So, bring on the explosive challenges and hold the “yes, dear” the next time you hear a thought-provoking talk. I dare you.

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