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No Talking in the Corridors of Science

John Locke

The Cocktail Napkin

One of science's least heralded tools is the cocktail napkin. When scientists convene at meetings, much of the most interesting action occurs between sessions when informal, sometimes heated, but usually illuminating discussions take place. Theories are sketched out, graphs are drawn, on whatever paper happens to be available. Although they may be indecipherable later, at the moment of scribbling these materials seem, and actually may be, brilliant.

Conferences are indispensable to science. They demystify it for the student. They affirm the promise of junior scientists and confer recognition upon their more senior colleagues. If teleconferencing becomes the mode, we should all become concerned that convening—a behavior that is critical to science—will have to be added to the endangered behaviors list. And this may happen if the proliferation of teleconferencing equipment comes to constrict travel budgets, just as e-mail stands to shrink long-distance telephone budgets.

There are several other potential benefits of computerized communication in science. One relates to the launch-pad for future scientists—graduate education. It would appear that the Internet is greatly facilitating the process by which prospective students evaluate and enter universities. Some distance teaching that is conducted electronically may also lure into an investigative career promising individuals who might normally be left out.

Although I have not systematically surveyed colleagues who have sensory or motor handicaps, my impression is that electronic communication can be very helpful to the blind, who are able to use Braille-to-print and print-to-speech conversion systems, as well as the profoundly hearing impaired. One assumes, additionally, that the increasingly sedentary life of the computer-user may be a blessing to those with restrictive mobility problems.

Although the loom-smashings attributed to the fictitious Ned Ludd took place in the vicinity of Sheffield, England, where I work, none of Ludd's antipathy to "modern machines" has rubbed off on me. Indeed, as a scientist, a writer, and an American living in Britain, I have come to feel that I could not live without e-mail and the Internet. But where dialogue and collaboration are concerned, I do feel there must be a healthy balance between orthographic systems and face-to-face vocal communication. Exactly what mix constitutes an optimal balance, of course, remains to be seen. That is, after all, what this exciting new experiment is all about.

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