Science can sometimes be a bit of a lonely pursuit. Sitting at a machine analysing endless samples, producing heaps of numbers, which then have to be processed and evaluated. After that comes the paper-writing stage. Hour upon hour of word processing, bashing out a manuscript to send to journals called something like: The Journal of Inexplicable Minutia or Geocomica et Comatosa Inactiva. Even when the paper is submitted, the job is still far from over. Back comes the manuscript mauled by two or three, often anonymous, reviewers. Then it’s another slog dealing with a seemingly endless list of changes and edits. And, at last, the paper is accepted and the process starts all over again.
But working in splendid isolation is not a good way to generate ideas. Results need to be discussed and debated. So, like most areas of life communication is a critical part of the scientific process. Which is why scientific conferences are so important. Of course, such meetings have a social side. A chance to catch up with old friends, with most people heading out each evening to chat about, well, almost anything really. But at the heart of the matter is the presentation of scientific results, followed by questions and open debate. Such meetings come in many different flavours, from small, friendly, one-day seminars focussed on a single specialist topic, to big week-long international conferences. Taking place at the moment in Houston, Texas is the biggest international gathering of planetary scientists. The Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, generally known as “LPSC”, has been running annually for 43 years.
The first LPSC took place in Houston between January 5th and 8th 1970 and was called the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference. Not surprisingly, the early meetings were mainly concerned with the results of studies on the Moon rocks returned by the Apollo programme. As the focus of the meeting shifted to include more non-lunar science, the name was changed in 1978 and given its present title.
Today, LPSC has an extensive remit and covers the full range of planetary science activities from the results of the latest spacecraft missions, such as Messenger and Dawn, to geochemical studies of mineral grains that predate the Solar System.
All of which is great news for the approximately 2000 people able to attend the conference, but if you weren’t able to make it to Houston, how can you keep up with what’s going on. Well there are quite a few ways really. Being a high profile conference the proceedings, are well reported by the mainstream media, so for example the BBC has already covered topics such as: Titan’s methane rain, water ice on Mercury’s poles, evidence for dynamic processes on Mercury and budget cuts at NASA. For a more personal slant on the proceedings at LPSC, it is worth visiting Emily Lakdawalla’s ever excellent blog for the Planetary Society. Of course, there is also plenty of good stuff on the LPSC website itself. I particularly enjoyed the photographs taken at the welcome reception featuring various members of the Open University. The “Livestream” feature on the website provides videos of various press conference presentations and, for some more informal chat, there is of course a Twitter stream.
Once the Open University Team gets back to work next week, there will certainly be lots of informal conversations and post-LPSC discussions. Opinions will be sought, and freely given, about what the most important and significant findings presented at the conference were. We will certainly have a more formal review of how it all went at our weekly Cosmochemistry Research Group meeting on Thursday morning. And I guess that’s the point about a conference, it shakes people about a bit and gets them talking about science. It just has to be a good thing.