In which too much grading plus Mel Brooks leads me to ponder the nature of crowd reactions at scientific presentations.

Fair warning: I have been grading for the last several days, and grading makes me silly. This post may give you a sense of just how silly.

Last night, during a brief break in grading, I caught the last half of Young Frankenstein on TV.

Dr. Frankenstein's presentation of the Creature to the public, under the auspices of the Transylvania Neurological Society, is one of my favorite parts of the movie, not least because Dr. Frankenstein is so very quotable. "Please! Remain in your seats, I beg you! We are not children here, we are scientists!" and "For safety's sake, don't humiliate him!" are just two exhortations that I can imagine getting some good use in scientific presentations.

Also, when Dr. Frankenstein's presentation of the Creature goes off the rails, members of the audience start pelting both scientist and monster with what look to be cabbages.

Which led me to notice that there are not too many scientific presentations nowadays at which audience members throw fruit or vegetables at the presenters.

Possibly this is a reflection of the current direction of scientific work -- focused on findings so unsurprising (at least in a global sense) as to be unlikely to elicit strong reactions from those hearing them. Or, maybe scientists are channeling their disbelief and outrage to private channels, say, by fuming about presentations in lab meetings when they've returned from the conferences at which they're presented, or saving the worst of their aggressive outburst for when they are the third reviewer.

On the other hand, maybe it reflects the limited supply of fruits and vegetables available at most venues for scientific presentations.

Your better complementary continental breakfast spreads can be counted on for apples, bananas, and oranges, but not so much for cabbages or overripe tomatoes. And, some conference venues (like the San Diego Convention Center) don't really have free food so much as places to buy snacks -- snacks which tend to be pretzels or muffins or cookies, items not traditionally hurled to register one's disagreement with a research presentation.

Are warm pretzels too delicious an item to hurl at one's fellow scientist to register one's disbelief? Do muffins not fly well enough, nor generate sufficient force at impact? Or is it primarily a matter of the cost of these items that makes them unappealing as instruments of peer review?

Maybe this calls out for an economic analysis?

In the event that you had a cabbage handy, given the relative scarcity of cabbages at scientific meetings, would you tend to keep it rather than throwing it just in case the next presentation turned out to be even worse? And wouldn't there be something like an opportunity cost associated with holding onto the cabbage, given how much room it would take up in the conference tote bag?

Really, someone should investigate this. But not me, because I still have grading to do.

5 responses so far

  • @DrRubidium says:

    side note: @DavidManly and I are moderating "It's good to be the king!": Blog the Mel Brooks Way at #scio12 😀

  • Pinko Punko says:

    This should be an online/phone/Fbook game where players have a limited number of cabbages with which they must choose to deploy or barter to accumulate, picking and choosing whom to pelt!

  • Nick says:

    I think I have a brilliant idea for a vending machine that can be installed in conference venues. Perhaps I should put up a Kickstarter for it or something...

    (Primary technical challenge: Preserving produce in an optimal, partially-rotted state for a reasonable storage time, but still allowing it to be warm enough so that the end user will be able to use its smell to maxiumum effect. Proposed: Explore deep freezing for storage, followed by high-power microwave defrosting in a chamber that is carefully vented to the roof of the building.)

  • ComputerScienceProffie says:

    I advised some students implementing a game for evaluating professors in which they could give professors a flower or throw a cake at them (virtually). My colleagues hated it, the students loved it.

  • vanilla says:

    You are funny when you're silly. Hope all the papers are scored and the grades put to bed. Don't throw cabbages at the students.