Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Geeking out at 14C CON

Transmitting from UNESCO HQ, Spawn sez:

I've never been to a gaming con before, but I arrived in Paris Sunday morning for what turns out to be my heaven-on-earth geek-a-thon conference: The International Radiocarbon Conference. I'm heading to OSRCon in August with Carter, and I expect there will be some parallels between the last couple of days and what I'll experience there. I mean like on a human-being social level.

To wit: There is a radiocarbon community. It's fair to call it a community since it's actually surprisingly small (or the group that can get to a conference is fairly small), and everyone is connected to everyone else at least tangentially through collaboration, training, lineages of technical expertise, and so on. Very much like the OSR blogosphere, I realized that I know folks and am known to others through scientific publications (analogous to blogs and maybe some especially noteworthy posts). You get a sense of people from their writing, analysis, and occasional email correspondence, and you build up an image and identity for that person without ever meeting them. But you don't really know them.

When I arrived yesterday I saw my session organizer, who I first learned of while she was doing her brilliant dissertation because she cited an early article of mine (which made me think she must be pretty solid, obviously), who was chatting with someone else whose article I reviewed last year ... both having been students of a hero of mine that I ran into again later in the day. And then we all started geeking out on radiocarbon stuff, freshwater reservoir corrections (the veritable 1e weapon speed tables of radiocarbon dating), marine offsets, carbon cycling ... and that was the most serious fucking geek-out I've had about that stuff I've ever had IN PERSON. And suddenly you realize you're not alone in whatever lonely little corner of the blogosphere lab you're doing your work in: There are others just like me! And it's the only the first 15 minutes of the conference!!!!! AARAGAGARAJHHH!

And they're happy to meet me! They've read my posts articles, and thought this one was great. And then some of the big old school names are here and all the old school radiocarbon people call each other out in the middle of their talks to joke or point to some useful unpublished data that one has (like a great d30 mechanic for resolving mass demon-summoning combat that they need to finally work up into a post), or remind each other of how the ion-source from LLNL ended up in Denmark. And chuckles abound. I chuckle too. These are world-class mother fuckers doing the best radiocarbon science there is, and they're the full range of surly, awkward, earnest, smelly, well-dressed, sharp, sarcastic, or polite geeks that you find in any such rarefied environment, and they're having fun. Happy to see each other again.

And there are subtle factional rivalries that ostensibly center on differences in technical protocols, but in fact probably can be traced to some difference over a sciencey or social thing that few people remember from the late 1980s. But the intellectual offspring are subtly influenced in their interactions because of that history. Can some of them overcome this and bridge the gap? Forget the past? Or is it time to mount an all out offensive to eradicate their ridiculous pretreatment protocols once and for all? And which side am I on, having just galloped in from the wastelands of North America, a veritable John Carter of radiocarbon, but now with a renewed sense of purpose and a wholly unknown and desirous magical protocol?

It's the chemistry version of the Edition Wars, basically. At any rate, that's enough obliquery.

So: I've wondered whether blogospherics and other distanced interactions aren't usually enough to make an effective community. They aren't on their own, I think. But as with close scientific collaboration at a distance, when you DO get to meet those folks, then you have laid some groundwork for starting to talk and joke, share stories, getting some serious work done, and for reinvigorating your joy and excitement about your own work/hobby/obsession. Camaraderie, essentially. There's no real substitute for the game (of Science, of D&D, or the D&D of Science or the Science of D&D) shared with other people.

So keep enjoying your cons, in whatever form they manifest, my friends.


  1. Well put -- I am so glad you're having a fun and inspiring time over there!

  2. I can say that you, sir, are a gentleman and a scholar, and it has never been more truly said.

    1. Well sir, as we used to say in 2nd grade: It takes one to know one.