I skilfully navigated the bus network this morning to get in to the conference venue with time to spare for my first event. It was organised by the UK charity Sense About Science and was organised as a kind of career development event for young scientists. Peer review (examination of your work by others in the field) is part of the process of getting your work published, and the speakers, some of whom are experienced journal editors had some useful advice, such as to write careful cover letters to those journals that require them, to get work published while still a PhD student and to try to ensure recognition for peer reviewing you do while a junior researcher (say when a senior colleague asks for you input on reviewing – make sure the journal editor knows this has taken place). Though the session was aimed more towards helping steer young researchers through the peer review process, there was some mention made of relatively new journals, such as PLoS One, which publishes all submitted articles that are free of error, and lets bulk of the peer review happen afterwards, such as happens in the physics arXiv website.
I asked about the campaign led by Sir Tim Gowers, the Cambridge Mathematician, to boycott acting as peer reviewers for journals who then sell the published research articles that have been reviewed for free by scientists back to the Universities at quite a high expense. The panel said that the boycott might well have some impact, but that in their areas (one was from a medical journal) it has not had much effect yet. They stressed that they felt peer review and proper journals with impact factors were currently too important for the boycott to have a great effect. Time will tell, I suppose.
The next session was a keynote address by Mary Robinson, previous president of Ireland. It was about the threat of climate change and was very inspirational. She argued very well how tackling the problems, in a way that respects all communities of humans in the world is going to be a very hard challenge. It is going to have to involve all kinds of people, including scientists and politicians, working together – and even then including more organisations, such as the multinational corporations that control a growing fraction of resources of all sorts but outside the standard international treaties. Aside from the inspiration she roused, I must say I did feel a little hopeless that enough of a consensus would ever be reached to find a good solution to this problem. It also made me think that I should be working on it myself. I’m pleased, at least that my PhD student is now working in this area. The picture above shows the really poor zoomed-in picture I took of Mary Robinson from far away in the auditorium.
After that I was straight off to a session run by people who organise Maths Week in Ireland as an annual outreach activity to encourage interest and uptake of maths. Again, it was pretty inspirational, and there were a number of magic tricks presented, each with simple mathematical explanations that were suggested to get kids in maths classes to want to learn more maths just for the fun of it. I was tweeting about the events all morning, and the one that mentioned a little maths trick was easily the most re-tweeted, so I guess it works!
I followed that up by attending a live interview on stage between Nobel Laureate, and joint-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson, and an interviewer, who was quite witty but didn’t introduce himself, so I don’t know who he was. Watson came across as very candid and a combination of rather modest and occasionally a bit immodest (but he has much to be immodest about, to coin a phrase). He was quite amusing, and good at telling anecdotes. The interviewer went through some of pieces of advice Watson presented in a book called “Avoid Boring People”, whose title was meant as good advice from both meanings. One piece was never to be in a room with more that two Nobel Prize winners, one I think that will be easy to follow in general, and another was not to take up golf. Why? Because it takes too much time away from study.
Now, I’m sitting listening to another Nobel Prize winner, Peter Doherty giving me a perfectly-pitched lesson (given that I know rather little biology) about immunity and influenza.