Dispatches From the Field
AAAS 2000 Annual Meeting
Notes from the Meeting - Feb. 21, 2000
By Rob Semper
Attending the AAAS annual meeting is like going to a candy store when you were a kid. There are so many interesting things to attend, it is hard to figure it all out. What follows is my brief session diary.
As the Sun enters its most active phase in its 22 year activity cycle this year (See Solarmax-2000), there is real concern about the effect of all this solar activity on things back here on earth. Since the last solar maximum, there has been a proliferation of telecommunication satellites, complex electrical power and communication systems and near earth space activity, all of which has the potential to be severely affected by a major solar outburst. In a session "Space Weather and Things that Go Bump in the Daytime" researchers described the possible implications of extraterrestrial weather and a new space weather classification and forcasting system which has been developed to help us cope.
Our understanding of the makeup of the universe has been markedly improved through the fantastic images created by the Hubble Space Telescope. But Hubble looks out only at visible and near visible wavelengths. New imaging satellite telescopes are being launched which can look at the sky in the UV, IR and X-ray wavelengths as well. One of the most recent launches was that of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory last July. In a session "New Views of the Invisible Universe: First Light From CHANDRA", the mission scientists presented the initial images of supernovae remnants, clusters of galaxies, jets in active galactic nucei and stars.
In the past, the study of cosmology has depended primarily on speculation and incomplete information because of the difficulty of collecting meaningful data. While the basic theory of general relativity has remained constant, the next level of detail was quite speculative. But over the last decade recent observational programs using more sophisticated apparatus have enabled astrophysicists to obtain much better data about the structure of the universe. At "The New Cosmology: Theory Confronts Observation" researchers discussed the new data and what it has told us about the nature, age and fate of the universe.
One of the interesting areas of study for mathematicians is the nature of complex networks. Recently there has been a lot of interest in the so called "small world phenomenon" or six degrees of separation idea. This is the phenomenon whereby one finds out one is linked to a newly met person through a very short chain of acquaintances. At "Six Degress of Seperation: From Small-World Networks to the Web" reseachers discussed the properties of large, interconnected systems whose connections are not completely random or completely regular. Far from being an esoteric area of research, the fact that these systems can be understandable has practical consequences for many areas of work such as the design of Web search engines or the containment of infection disease.
The work of scientists is not only intellectually stimulating, it is often aesthetically compelling as well. But often this beauty is hidden to most of the public. Work by photographer Felice Frankel at MIT has resulted in a wonderful collection of images of science published in a recent book. At a session "Science as Art and Art as Science" she discussed some of the issues that she confronts while producing these images such as deciding how far it is appropriate to go in removing extraneous material to direct viewing focus, or in adding color and light to a image to enhance its sensibility, or in retouching an images which has a particular flaw.
Science is big business, and no where more so that in the business of medical applications to Genomic research. In a talk "Genes and Drugs: What to do with all the Genes?" William Haseltine of the human Genome Sciences, Inc discussed the difference between the fruits of the Human Genome Project which is developing the sequence map of the human genome and the process for the development of therapeutic agents which can support the improvement of health based on genetic information.
Many of the sessions at the AAAS annual meeting involve the public policy issues surrounding a scientific issue. The topic of public understanding of science is the focus of a number of sessions. At the session "Engaging with the Public in Science-Related Controversies" a project concerning public engagement in biotechnology in UK was described which involved public meetings and opinion research to help develop a public policy perspective. This was followed by a discussion of an innovative project that used drama to present public science issues to high school students.
At the turn of the century, a major research effort is being mounted to understand our brain and its structure and functioning. This work is being aided with the addition of the new tool of functional MRI which allows for observation of the brain function in real time. A "The Thinking, Feeling Brain" session, research was presented on a long term study of children with attention disorders which is beginning to show both the origins and the development of this disorder.
The diversity of topics is quite incredible. Unlike most scientific meetings, because of its broad membership the AAAS specialized in crosscutting topical sessions which appeal to non specialists. The meeting attracts exceptionally good speakers and strong researchers which makes for good sessions. This years conference was no exception and it makes for a great time. Next year, San Francisco.
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