It's strangeness that sells
The British Association's conference is the year's biggest public science event. Charles Arthur asks why it attracts more virtual visitors than real ones, and, below right, rounds up some of the best stories
Monday 16 September 1996
Actually, I made all that up. Except, that is, for the forests in Antarctica and the hphysilophodon. The forests covered the continent 100 million years ago, and vegetarian dinosaurs browsed on their leaves and branches. The dinosaurs were wiped out 70 million years ago, and the forests disappeared as the climate cooled and the single land mass broke up.
Why have you not heard about that? Because the reports about the BA compete for precious media time and space with all other events. But you can be sure that if Princess Diana had turned up, and had expressed an interest in the hphysilophodon, TV and radio newsreaders all over the country would have been wrestling with its pronunciation, while headline writers struggled to fit it on to the page.
However, the Princess was not among the estimated 3,000 adults and 7,000 schoolchildren who turned up during the week. Indeed, many of the 315 sessions over the five weekdays were attended by only a handful of people - which prompts the question: what is the point of the BA's annual meeting?
The glib answer is that it is meant to "bring science to the public". But the question of what science, and how best it should be presented, is one that troubles the organisation, says Peter Briggs, the executive secretary. In order to help answer this, a professional consultancy will be surveying people who attended the meeting.
But, Dr Briggs points out, the people who turn up are only a fraction of those who hear about the BA. Many more hear about it through the media - what he calls the indirect audience. But the millions of people who read the tabloid newspapers appear to remain blissfully unaware of science's biggest public annual event.
"We clearly fail to get anything into the tabloids unless it somehow involves Princess Diana or something like cheese-flavoured cabbages," Dr Briggs said last week.
"It seems that they're not interested in science per se unless it's strange things. And maybe we don't want to be purveyors of that sort of stuff."
The newspapers that report on the BA tend to be broadsheets. And radio and TV produce serious reports. But, says Dr Briggs, while journalists who report on the BA are key to its visibility, "we can't have the event without the direct audience". But journalists' reports of events at the BA often do not match those that the audience who go to the talks hear. For example, the 200 people who crowded in to hear the discussions on BSE would probably not have recognised the news stories that appeared the next day, in which John Pattison, head of the Government's advisory committee on BSE and CJD, discussed how long it would be before we could feel comfortable about the low incidence of new cases of "new variant" CJD. That was because his remarks were directed to the press corps, who in effect forced the audience out of the lecture theatre to have a tea break, while they fired questions at the speakers.
But if we assume that the public's interest is indicated by the patterns of attendance, then the BSE discussion, and the three-day seminar on "Brains, Minds and Consciousness", are among the hottest topics around. Both subjects attracted more people than could fit into the lecture theatres.
Perhaps that is the sort of science that the BA might be aiming to promote in the meeting if it wants to bring more people through the doors.
"Next year we are going to try having a festival-wide session on a topic in the first day," said Dr Briggs. "It will probably look at a topic like science and the quality of life. That makes the whole day more focused. Some of the newspapers have said there should be fewer papers. But it's hard to know what the cut-off should be: when is the variety unattractive? Some sessions, we know, have a small audience. But we're prepared to accept that."
However, there could be a quiet revolution on the way. This year for the first time, reports on sessions at the BA were available almost as they happened, and to a worldwide audience. Inevitably, the Internet arrived. The BBC's Tomorrow's World had nine writers who wrote short reports on the sessions, which were then loaded up on its Web site. Web surfers could get an hourly dose of science without having to leave their desks.
For the first couple of days the number of visitors to the site was running at 7,500 daily; but on Wednesday 24,400 people dropped in, and in the 12 hours to midday on Thursday a further 6,690 had browsed the event. That's a demonstration of interest from three times as many people as actually turned up, in a period of just 36 hours. The Tomorrow's World team, which had had to beg and borrow the computing resources, was, predictably, pleased.
The use of the Net is "very interesting, especially the question of how it could involve a different audience," said Dr Briggs. Future BA meetings could include a stronger "virtual" element. Certainly that would be the way to take an institution that stretches back into the 19th century very firmly into the 21st.
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