A week ago today I was flying back from Chicago with the words of myriad scientists ringing in my ears. I had just spent five days at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a veritable smorgasbord of research findings, controversy and solid scientific facts. It is probably the best general science conference on the planet, ranging from the unravelling of the genome of Neanderthal man to the suggestion that Darwin was influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.
One of the highlights was a talk by Al Gore, Nobel Laureate and former next president – as he once liked to bill himself. He had updated his talk and slide-show, and had honed his speech to his target audience of several thousand scientists. He was so popular that even the overflow lecture halls were crammed.
The jokes didn’t seem so new, though they did raise a laugh. “I’m a recovering politician” was a nice, self-deprecating line. So was the story about the old lady who spied him eating in a fast-food restaurant and told him that he would look just like that Al Gore if he dyed his greying hair. “Thank you,” Gore replied. To which the lady gave the unmissible retort: “And you sound just like him too.”
It was a stirring performance which ended with a call to arms. “Scientists can no longer accept the division between the work you do and the civilisation in which you live,” he told his rapt audience. “The stakes have never been higher.” The hordes who poured out of the lecture hall were unanimous in their approval. If only Gore had been able to arouse as much passion as this when he ran for president in 2000 – the world might have been in a very different place from where it is today.
Like an academic scorned
An earnest female American psychologist was sharing the same platform as a rather laid-back Frenchman in a similar line of work. The American professor presented evidence to show that pictures of semi-naked women dehumanise females quite literally in the minds of men, as seen from their brain scans. The Frenchman pointed out that northern Europe had a rather more liberal attitude to pictures of “sexy women” than southern Europe, yet women in the north had a better deal in terms of male chauvinism than those in the south. From the withering look the American psychologist gave her Gallic colleague, it was evident she did not agree.
His dark materials
The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss gave a masterful performance of how there is no hope for the future – his was indeed a gloomy view of the universe. There is so much mysterious dark energy surging around us that it could only end in disaster, he said. “It’s completely miserable,” he concluded, with a disturbingly cheerful smile.