Field of Science

Science Online 2012: a touching moment

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First, let me get the word "seminal" out of the way. There was a key moment for me at Science Online 2012, but I am only using the word seminal here before moving on because referring to penile effluvia was practically de rigueur at this meeting. Indeed, I had not been there for 10 minutes before a certain Scicurious whipped out a smartphone and treated a cupcake-eating crowd around a hotel bar table to a video of someone honking off a goose. Even as a hardened scientist of the gonad-penis-investigating variety, I suddenly found cupcakes suddenly not so terribly appetizing.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me get back to the key moment. While many moments surrounding it at the Science Online open mic night were off-key--some more so than others--this moment involved a woman and a scientist and a science writer--all the same person--onstage, preparing to sing while accompanying herself alone, on guitar. In the soft spill of stage lights, one of the leading lights of the Science Online community (and singer/musician himself), was helping the performer ready the acoustics. A few feet away in the darkness of the bar, I was tired. The room had reached the extraordinary decibel maximum that I discovered was characteristic of all Science Online gatherings involving alcohol. I'd practically lost my voice after several hoarsely screamed, scarcely heard conversations. But my eyes still worked, so I watched the performers and clapped for them all because dammit, it takes some ovaries to put yourself out there like that.

I admire people who can put themselves out there. Every single person at Science Online does that in one way or another. Writing things publicly exposes you, whether you are a scientist or a science writer or a social media guru. Entering the social media maelstrom expands your exposure--and your vulnerability--in ways that I'm not sure people have fully and completely intercalated into the writerly DNA. And every single person in that room, in some way or another, had entered the breach with that exposure, unhelmeting their minds and folding back the armor on their vulnerability, all for what I think is the same reason: Love of science.

But they weren't at Science Online only because they loved science. They were there for another reason (I mean, besides the one that involves alcohol). Before the conference, close-up avatars of real faces or anime representations of same were, for many of us, the sole visual exposure we'd ever had to each other. Yet, via Twitter and blogs and Facebook and Google+ and whatever else is out there, we had all connected among ourselves. 

I've had remarkable DM conversations with Science Online attendees that started on Twitter and then went confidential, not to gossip but to share deep personal details...and always with someone I had never met in person. In this way, Twitter and other forms of social media had become the 21st century equivalent of engaging with people thousands of miles away through handwritten letters, of opening a heart and a mind to a distant yet trusted Other because of shared passions. Except now we connected through electrons passing at light speed with our innermost thoughts and fears, laid even more bare than our words.

So we converged in Raleigh, NC, in the name of a love of science, but something else drove those 450 people to book flights, travel thousands of real miles, leave families and work, rearrange schedules, and invest four days of their time into meeting each other, drinking themselves silly, talking themselves hoarse, tattooing their bodies, hugging Bora Zivkovik, and waxing to the point of near poesis about penises. 

That something else was, I realized that night at the open mic, a need to be with our own. It was a need to be in person with people who were for many of us, virtual family. People may scoff cynically at that attitude, but I'm not someone who uses that descriptive loosely. I admit, last year, I didn't get it like I did this year. But last year, I hadn't joined the virtual family as a cousin before stepping into the embodiment of it in Raleigh. It really is an oddly constructed, supportive, interactive, and occasionally collectively drunk family. A strangely candid and blunt but simultaneously respectful and loving family. I've seen people at other conferences. They compete. They argue. They bluster. They clique up. They shut up when they want to speak out. They sit and listen, sometimes in fuming silence, while luminaries tell them how the cow ate the cabbage, as my sainted mother is fond of saying. 

But at this conference, everyone spoke. And everyone listened. The level of respect and caring was, really, like nothing I've ever seen, much less among a group of 450 people, many of whom were experiencing one another's physical presence for the first time. It seems like an overstatement, but just as an example, in a session I moderated, I think that every single person attending spoke, offered an opinion, engaged in the discussion with passion and candor but also with respect. And in any session, even if not all voices could fit in, Twitter offered an oft-used outlet for voicing blunt opinions. For whatever reason, we were all comfortable enough among ourselves to say what we really thought, freely...and is there any greater relief for a writer?

And some of us took bravery a step further, beyond putting ourselves out there with our words. Some of us got up on stage in front of what must be among the most critical and critical thinking people on Earth. Some of us--not me--got up there anyway and sang hearts out at the open mic night. Maybe some were off key (ahem...ocean bloggers?)...maybe some sang very, very quietly. Many forgot the words, the chord progression, their drink. Yet they did it, trusting in their audience not to troll them, not to take advantage of that vulnerability, not to fuck with them.

And as I stood there, hoarse, tired, overbeered, and left only with my eyes to function, I felt that acceptance all around me and saw that moment, the key for me: as the woman scientist and science writer performer indicated she was ready to start, the Science Online luminary helping her reached out and very, very gently and comfortingly, briefly touched her arm in a natural and familial gesture of support. That was it. That was The Moment.

Which grew into a thousand such moments. I saw it repeated again and again over those brief days, that real-world reaching out, that natural connection made between already-friends who'd never or rarely met. That nanosecond of contact coalesced in a single brief, spotlit moment for me why we were all there, embodying the virtual world through which we'd been in touch before, making the mutual experience of our shared exposure a tangible and familial reality. We had come to meet Our Own, in person, to indulge fully and freely for a handful of days in what few others we know in real life probably tolerate for long.

Which included, of course...talking about duck penises.


  1. You so rock Emily! <3 What a great set of words molded into thoughtful paragraphs to explain why I've embedded myself in this community and participating in this conference for over my fifth straight year. So great to meet you!

  2. Emily - there are so many quotable sentences here


    because dammit, it takes some ovaries to put yourself out there like that.

    But at this conference, everyone spoke. And everyone listened. The level of respect and caring was, really, like nothing I've ever seen, much less among a group of 450 people, many of whom were experiencing one another's physical presence for the first time

    , and something for OOscience perhaps: Which included, of course...talking about duck penises.).

    But all of that aside, I felt like I had just been at a family reunion, except there wasn't that annoying aunt or critical cousin. Everyone was so welcoming, so supportive, SO FUN! The conversations were intellectually fulfilling, and the camaraderie was something I had never experienced before, save for my gang that I've been friends with since high school (which is a lot to sa, especially since I had only met 90% of the participants IRL for the first time that weekend). People always talk about counting their blessings. Well, for me, that now includes being a part of this community. *sheds a tear*

  3. Fabulous, Emily, truly fabulous. And next time we need to make sure our sessions don't get pitted against each other timewise, because I would have loved to be in the audience of your session.

    What a pleasure to finally meet you, someone who is brilliant, caring, fierce, and a great ally.

  4. @kevin Great to have met you, too--and only this year. ;) You are the musical heart of the conference, I'd hazard, along with David Kroll.

    @Jeanne You are funny. OOscience should totally take that line. Now here's a tissue.

    @kate Ah, Kate. What a total delight to have met you in person. You were someone with whom I got to have a couple of really in-depth conversations, and I enjoyed them. Talk about brilliant, fierce, and caring. If I do have a session next year...I want to specifically ask NOT to be simulprogrammed with the great women-oriented sessions like yours.

  5. It was a key moment for me, too! You seriously made me tear up reading this.

  6. *sniff*

    I hadn't realized that you noticed.

    The backstory has pictures and links - I put it up at my blog but your readers should just scroll down to the section that has, "The backstory," in bold.

    I love you both. The honor was/is mine.


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