AMN8 2017

Magic tricks, the eureka fallacy and tea-breaks: confessions of a conference-going scientist

Fresh back from five days in Queenstown for NZ’s nanotechnology and advanced-materials science conference, Dr Ben Mallett reckons AMN8 shows that our stereotypes, of science and scientists, need a bit of nuance.

What happens at a science conference? Lots of “talks” (in which scientists speak about their research, with some accompanying pictures); poster sessions; specialised meetings; and tea-breaks (very important – this is where you get to discuss the talks, and recaffeinate). Importantly, AMN8 also included some science demonstrations and talks for the public.

Perhaps it’s hard to see what the point is – back to the lab you scientists, collect data! Yet gatherings such as AMN8 are a vital part of the scientific process. They’re a fantastic way of sharing information at a time when specialisation makes it practically impossible to read all the literature in your field. They’re also where collaborations are formed, where theories are discussed and where new ideas for research projects are born.

My conference began earlier than expected when I found myself on the plane south seated next to Charles Anderson, who was covering the conference for The Spinoff. With some trepidation I started explaining my research on superconductor-sandwiches, but happily found engaged questions coming back. Delighted with my (somewhat literally) captivated audience, I persisted. By the time we were coming down through the clouds we’d moved from the beautiful science of electrons in a superconductor through to how science can interface with the wider world.

This was a foretaste of the flavour of AMN8 that made it such a successful conference: an unplanned meeting with someone new, an engaging scientific discussion, in a relaxed and unpretentious setting.

But AMN8 was successful, too, at showing that some of our stereotypes, of science and scientists, need a bit of nuance…

Scientist: Wild-haired, eccentric guy in white coat

Professor Frinks, star of popular reality television show The Simpsons

We all are at least a little eccentric, really. Outwardly scientists are no more so in my experience. But what was outwardly evident at AMN8, is that the ratio of women to men in science is closer to something representative (50:50 as nature has it) – from professors at the top of their fields, through to scientists just starting out. This was fantastic and is good for science. There’s still a way to go on this issue, but hopefully we keep going in the right direction.

The other nice demographic at AMN8 was the number of international folk. Many travelled especially to NZ for the conference. With expertise in a particular topic so often spread out all over the world, a research group’s peers are most likely found overseas.

There were no white lab coats to be seen. Practical as they are even in everyday life, the scientists at AMN8 were in camouflage.

Eureka!

Jessica Chastain, star of popular documentary Interstellar

At AMN8, the latest discoveries and advancements were presented – work that is expanding the knowledge of humanity (you can’t Google the answers to these questions). Particularly impressive to me was the developments towards making silicon-based quantum computers. This research, led from across the ditch, was presented by Michelle Simmons. They can put a dopant atom into silicon, exactly where they want it – by exactly I mean “20 atoms to the left, four atoms to the right and 33 down, please”. And this is but one small part of the science and technology they are working on to make a quantum computer.

Alas, however, “eureka” moments are not as commonplace as Hollywood would have you believe. Instead science almost always proceeds by incremental steps. Isaac Newton got it: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It is hardly ever one person, in one lab, solving everything at once.

This is important because we should not belittle the methodical, consistent progress that science often represents. It is important, too, to realise that tricky questions and problems are being tackled. It takes time and resources to figure them out. Lots of time usually – from the discovery of conventional superconductivity through to a satisfactory theory of it took 40 years. And that was despite all the big names having a go at it – think Einstein, Bohr, Feynman.

Science to the rescue

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, apparently. There was a lot of cool science presented at AMN8 showcasing some incredible, and incredibly useful, things that can now be done. For example, metal-organic frameworks (some of the most porous solids we know of and which act like sponges for molecules), organic electronics or next-generation solar panels (photovoltaic cells). There was even some proper magic from the very first speaker of the conference, who tore up a newspaper during his talk, then magically had it all back together by the end. But, many of the big problems facing our society can in large part be adequately addressed with technology we already have – I’m thinking of environmental sustainability, social equity, nuclear weapons, many health issues, and so on. The solutions can mostly come from social, economic and political change.

I say this because there’s a danger in doing nothing, just because you’re waiting for the next scientific/technological advance to solve everything. These advances will definitely help with some of the big problems, and perhaps help create new ones – but the tools we need are essentially already here.

As for myself, I came away from AMN8 with many useful discussions, several new contacts and project ideas that I’m following up on now. I’m looking forward to AMN9 in two years, and maybe if Hollywood movies are the real news, I’ll have a eureka moment to share with everyone there.

Dr Ben Mallett is a Rutherford Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Auckland.


This is part of a series of articles for the Spinoff about and from AMN8, The Eighth International Conference on Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, which was held in Queenstown in February. This content series is sponsored by the conference’s hosts, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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