Find a small meeting and go to it!

Sometimes knowledge seems to be a beaten sheet of glimmering copper, undulating seamless and whole. This knowledge is complete, untouchable, and unchanging. My interaction with it might be to understand it, to caress it, to memorize it, perhaps even to explain it. It is a perfect element, perhaps a noble gas, or even the glorious Periodic Table of the Elements itself. It does not invite change. All too often our textbooks make all knowledge seem to be like this, inaccessible and distant.

At other times knowledge seems to be an uneven quilt pieced by a madman, here shimmering silk, sewn to an improbable shard of jagged tin, stuck to a simple fold of wet cardboard. I might fix this corner or that, in easy ways, but improving the whole overwhelms me. This might be a more realistic view of information, but how can it be accessed?

Here I make the case for small scientific meetings, preferably in workshop format. You may think the large meeting will have all the choicest morsels for you to choose. But a large meeting is full of private banquets, discussions that might change your life, but you are not there. The best meetings include all meals, so you can sit next to anyone and learn from them.

When we began to explore the wonderful world of social amoebae, the annual Dictyostelium meetings proved crucial. We went to talks, but did not understand them. We could not tell the silk from the cardboard. We hardly noticed the scientific conflicts. We could not identify the true advances. Only at dinner, lunch, or breakfast, could we learn these things. Rich Kessin, Chris Thompson, Gadi Shaulsky, Jeff Williams, Pauline Schaap, Adam Kuspa, Rob Kay, Salvo Bozzaro, and many others educated us, piece by piece, at meals. We learned what to look for, what was well-known, what was controversial, where a true advance might be made. We formed collaborations that extended for years, even branching from one generation to the next. Now, after more than a decade with this lovely system, we hardly remember where the cardboard was, or the silk, the quilt is so changed.

Right now I am at an even smaller meeting, called Cooperation in multi-partner settings: biological markets & social dilemmas, organized by Ronald Noë and Mark van Vught at the Lorentz Center at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, just 20 minutes by train from Schiphol airport. There are 52 names on the list, perhaps half young grad students and postdocs. Of these, 17 people are local, from the Netherlands. The others come from 16 different countries. There are 11 women. There are economists, anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists. There are empiricists working on primates, on bacteria, on plants, on amoebae, on insects, and on humans. Theoreticians are heavily represented. This is a meeting that is now closed, but it was open to anyone who cared to come, if they registered in time. It represents the best possible chance for a young graduate student to spend a week with people whose books they have read, whose ideas they have pondered. You can look for yourself at the people who have created knowledge who are here. When you meet these people, you can hear in their speech the cadence of their writing. You can see where those great thoughts came from.
At a small meeting, you get time to discuss ideas, even if the structured time is entirely devoted to talks. But this meeting is even better than that. It is a workshop where nearly all the time is devoted to discussion. Maybe we’ll come up with something new.

The first day we listened to people propose areas within the general theme. Some were detailed, seemingly suggesting both questions and answers. Others were more exploratory. We ended with a quick plea for more ideas, and suggestions for several. Then Ronald combined several, according to suggestions from us. Finally, we chose which area to join. Each group had about 6 members except for one, with 12. Here are what the groups are about: 1. Context in cooperative markets, 2. Strategies in markets, 3. Public goods, 4. Co-evolution, 5. Biological markets in animals, and 6. The role of information in markets. Each group is separate, with separate people, in separate rooms, though we gather at breaks and meals. We also have offices, three people per office, young and old mixed together.
On the second day there has been a lot of casual discussion. In our group we spent some time defining context, defining markets, defining trade. Enough of the initial discussion was about arbuscular mycorrhizae that Nancy Collins Johnson shared a powerpoint on the topic, showing how plants and mycorrhizae track each other and how relationships change under different kinds of soils and fertilizers. We thought about whether we could write a paper on trade markets of humans with insights from microbes, just to turn things around. Principles like know your partners, or parcel your goods, or have a diverse set of commodities to trade came up as possible themes, along with about 7 more. But some of the theoreticians feared this would be too gimmicky. Others worried that we did not know enough microbial systems to be complete. We broke for lunch and will discuss more this afternoon, sacrificing a sunny day.

As we talk, we learn different perspectives. We meet new people. We see young scientists get to know each other. The next time they meet, these shared experiences will make ready collaboration that much easier. I can’t tell yet what the sum of the meeting will be, but so far, I’m learning. So, try to discover the small meetings in your field, or in fields close to yours. They are worth it.

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At lunch with the famous Peter Hammerstein.

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Grad student, Gijsbert Werner gets to chat with Rufous Johnstone from Cambridge.

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Toby Kiers notices that even at coffee we can collaborate, filling two cups at once.

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We learned a lot about arbuscular mycorrhizae from Nancy Collins Johnson.

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Our fearless leader, Ronald Noë, puts marketplaces to work in the workshop.

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We pay attention, but most of the workshop involved discussion.

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We had offices, keys, and officemates, additional new friends and colleagues.

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Our small group gets to work, with Toby Kiers, Chris Hauert, Peter Hammerstein, and Yoh Iwasa.

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Aniek Ivert explains her cool ants to our small group. They farm aphids right inside the nest!

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We eat well! Everyone competed for Hanna Kokko! Maybe because they knew about her Good Food Society in addition to her sharp mind!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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