Scattered reflections on Science Online 2011 (#scio11)

By Ed Yong | January 17, 2011 10:08 am

ScienceOnline 2011 is over and the daze of normality resumes. It’s hard to describe the feeling to people who have never been to the conference. Put it this way: you spend four days in a mental endurance event set in a parallel universe that’s largely similar to this one, except for the fact that all conversations are interesting.

As I said last year, ScienceOnline was a valuable chance to meet friends for the first time. It gave us a chance to take relationships that had begun on a screen and cement them in the flesh. It allowed us to trade ideas with like-minded people, and to gaze deeply into our navels so that we can do better at the things we love. As someone said on Twitter, it’s more like a family reunion than a conference.

The sessions were consistently great and the unconference format works wonders. Even when I wasn’t a panellist, I felt no less involved in the sessions I attended. (I’ll stick some write-ups later after catching up with regular blogging and I’ll collate some links to what others write.)

Some people have criticised Scio11 for selling out so quickly, with the implication that it must cater for a cliquey audience. But many of the delegates were first-timers; at least half of the people I talked to weren’t there last year. The reason why ScienceOnline is so successful is that the people who are there are the ones who really want to be. They regularly engage with the online community, they take part in discussions throughout the year, and they are ready and waiting to sign up. This doesn’t weaken the conference; it makes the conference. It creates a fantastic grassroots, everyone-mucking-in atmosphere. It’s a conference by the community for the community. I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Most inspiring moment: The keynote speech from Robert Krulwich from NPR’s RadioLab, who combines storytelling, sound effects and humility into a singular type of aural poetry. Inspiring and depressing in equal measure, the talk was a great reminder of how far I have yet to go.

Biggest fanboy moment: The aforementioned Robert Krulwich (him again?) came up to me after the Friday night dinner and told me that he reads this blog and really likes it. Outside, I was the epitome of smooth gratitude. Inside: crazy happy skippy dance. <waves at Robert>

Most startling moment: During the visit to the Duke Lemur Center, I can only assume that I antagonised one of the ruffed lemurs in some way because with no warning, it started making an alarm call that sounded like a sonic nuke going off in a narrow echoing corridor. “Show us on the lemur doll where the science writer touched you…”

Best souvenir: An awesome It’s Only Rocket Science mug that Karen James bought for me from the Kennedy Space Center.

Autograph score: Three. I have signed copies of Written in Stone by Brian Switek, Superbug by Maryn McKenna and The Science of Kissing by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

Best opening line to a conversation I walked into: “Why does Chewbacca have a crossbow?”

Worst opening line to a conversation I walked into: “We’re discussing Noam Chomsky.”


Once again, I am utterly indebted to Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker for giving me the chance to take part and for putting their blood, sweat and tears into making such an incredible event.

And finally, it was great to catch up with old friends and colleagues, to put some new faces to familiar names. For their amicable chat and great company, I thank  Carl Zimmer, SciCurious, David Dobbs, Alice Bell, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Christie Wilcox, Janet Stemwedel, John Rennie, Kaitlin Thaney, Maryn McKenna, Virginia Hughes, Steve Silberman, David Kroll, Brian Switek, Ivan Oransky, Hillary Rosner, Emily Anthes, Tom Levenson, Amos Zeeberg, Richard Grant, Jenny Rohn, Alok Jha, Liz Neeley, Arikia Millikan, DeLene Beeland, Sophia Collins, Karen James, Clifton Wiens, Kate Clancy, Seth Mnookin, Carmen Drahl, Colin Schultz, Jason Goldman, Christine Russell, Andrea Kuszewski, Olivia Koski, Hannah Waters, Craig McClain, Kevin Zelnio, Miriam Goldstein, Joanne Manaster, Marie-Claire Shanahan, John Timmer, Chris Rowan, Lucas Brouwers, Brian Mossop, Glendon Mellow, , James Hyrnyshyn, Jag Bhalla, Taylor Dobbs, Jamie Vernon, Robert Krulwich, Tyler Dukes, Catherine Anderson, Dan Ferber, Robin Lloyd, Tim de Chant, Paul Raeburn, Mark Hahnel, Scott Rosenberg, Diane Kelly, Matt Soniak, Amanda Moon, Eric Michael Johnson, Dave Mosher, John Logsdon, Nancy Shute, Zuska, Catherine Zivkovic, Chris Mooney, Peter Janiszewski, Emily Finke,Allie Wilkinson, Viv Raper, Dave Munger, Josh Rosneau, Misha Angrist, David Orr, Melody Dye, Greg Gbur, Lisa Jarvis, Holly Bik, Stacy Baker, Carin Bondar, John Hawks, Brian Malow, Mike Lisieski, Jeremy Yoder, Jim Hutchins, Psi Wavefunction, Holly Tucker, Walter Jessen, Steve Mirsky, Emily Willingham, Maia Szalavitz, Lyndell Bade, Robert Mitchum, Karyn Traphagen, Michael Barton, Pascale Lane, Jason Thibeault, Krystal D’Costa, Rhitu Chatterjee, Darlene Cavalier, Lou Woodley, Stephanie Zvan, David Shiffman and the many, many other people who I’ve undoubtedly forgotten because it’s late and I’m jetlagged. If I have forgotten you, you’re probably called Emily or John.

Photo by Lou FCD


Comments (12)

  1. Ed – You summarized ScienceOnline 2011 so eloquently here. It was wonderful to meet you at the conference and yours is one of the top blogs I’ll monitor from here on out. Hope to see you next year.

  2. Pleasure to meet you, too, Ed!

    On lemurs, in the other group tour, one lemur almost pissed on a blogger (can’t remember who), but I remember pulling him aside and saying “Watch out!” Right through the cage…

  3. Great summary of a great conference. Every last person who attends is enthusiastic for the goal of communicating science. The unconference works well because no one is especially shy…we are eager to share our thoughts. No prodding is required to get participants to speak up and join the conversation. Super to see you again, Ed.

  4. Dear Ed,

    Lovely summary of a great conference. Back at you on the conversations.

    One of the things I love about the conference ties into one of your memorable moments. The Krulwich one (no — not that one, the other one): I was unable to make the opening evening, but was so clued in by the Twitter feeding frenzy from the hall that I was (a) able to get the gist and (b) able to enter the tweetstream sufficiently effectively that people thought I was in the room. Now that’s folks living the claim.

    Great seeing you again here — and I hope to catch up with you across the water before next year’s Scio12.

  5. Why does it always take a Brit to so eloquently convey what goes on in America! 😉
    (I wasn’t even there this yr. but from attending previously and viewing this one online, I understand exactly what you mean.)
    Cynics will say the conference is cliquish, over-hyped, and self-absorbed (and I don’t entirely disagree with some of that!), but more importantly it is re-invigorating, inspirational, idea-filled, mind-expanding… and we need that in the dead of winter! Every science communicator should try to go at least once (though I don’t know how they’ll ever top Krulwich as a keynoter).

  6. Yep, you captured it. As I was leaving I said to someone, “I wish this lasted longer, except I think that might kill me.” Krulwich was amazing but so are you, Ed.

  7. Great to meet you, too!

    I’m a little concerned that I may have been involved in that Chomsky thing….

  8. I think I might be dreaming but I think *the* Ed Yong just mentioned me on his blog.

    It was great meeting you at SciO, and I very much hope I can make it to #solo11 (kilt and all) and see you again.

  9. Rhodes Boyson


    What have you got against Noam Chomsky? The man is a legend – I’m talking about his analysis of political & economic power, human rights and the mass media (esp in the US).

    If you’re saying that linguistics is boring then I’m probably with you

  10. I’m saying that at 10pm on a Saturday night, given a choice between chatting about Chewbacca or Noam Chomsky, I’m going to choose Chewbacca 😉

  11. Rhodes Boyson

    Ed – fair enough. Are we any closer on the crossbow issue?

  12. Grant

    they are ready and waiting to sign up.

    For a few a contributing factor was that registration opened in the wee hours where they lived.

    The on-line access to the meeting *is* very good despite that I was doing most of it after the fact owing to the time differences. There are few meetings I’m able to follow on-line like this and I really appreciated the attempts to include those calling in from afar. Others from outside the USA/Europe might want to take note of this! 😉


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