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Somehow I have managed to escape the gravitational pull of recent fads like Facebook and blogging. I prefer face to face, phone, and email communication, or the old fashioned venue of the local bar after a full day of talks. Penguin diagrams, after all, got their name as the product of discussions in a bar with a beverage in one hand and darts or a pool cue in the other. Networking is one important aspect of our profession that is rarely taught, but usually honed with some level of intuition and a fortifying dose of food.
There are people who sing Facebook's praises for facilitating easy communication with lost contacts or keeping up on current events in the minutia of collaborators' lives. Do I really want to hear every idea sans filter? No! If truly important news flashes over the blogosphere, it will come up at lunch.
That all changed when I went to PASI 2010, the Pan American Studies Institute on Rare Isotope Physics in Brazil over the first two weeks in August. Aside from the usual goals of gathering a broad base of rare isotope expertise for the benefit of the more junior attendees, PASI 2010 is testing a hypothesis- that non-traditional media like blogs, recordings, and online banks of talk slides can be effective tools in casting lasting resources for rare isotope physics beyond the reach of printed journals or direct contact with scientists. PASI features a web log, or blog, giving an account from the audience's chair, and a WIKI encyclopedic page.
Go to http://groups.nscl.msu.edu/jina/pasi2010/index.php/Main_Page for the web based proceedings for PASI 2010. You'll find a link for every speaker, including their talk slides and a video of their talk delivery, broad topic WIKI (What I Know Is) pages covering an array of rare isotope related nuclear physics topics fortified with links to other web resources, talks, and reference citations in the familiar printed journal format, a growing jargon page to help the novice, and a variety of aids that allowed the participants to get the most out of their time during PASI. As I write, 50 physicists are making small edits to the online resource in lieu of traditional proceedings.
I decided to answer a co-organizer's second round of pleas for blogger volunteers: attendees who would cover and post online the highlights or impressions of every talk, professional interactions during the week, and everything else in between. Together we were nine graduate students and postdocs from institutions in Brazil, Canada, Germany, and the United States. It was intimidating, to be sure. There is an art to articulating the important aspects of high and low level talks with both insight and humor. No one in highly interdisciplinary fields is an expert on everything. Indeed, students who liked an astrophysics workshop's blog appreciated getting someone else's take on what was important; having a contrast to the message they took away helped in surprising ways and provided some reassuring comfort during more overwhelming sessions.
Over dinner in Brazil, there was significant discussion of the lasting benefit after PASI. Will students really use it? If they look, will they find our pages helpful or a self-indulgent exercise that produced inferior proceedings? With the participants having access to edit anything and everything, how much damage can one person do? The beauty of a WIKI is its flexibility for continual improvement. Will the fluid nature for creating a WIKI and lack of hard deadlines generate good intentions and risk little follow-through? One thing was clear. We don't know.
On the other hand, the PASI participants who dove in with gusto to this format change enjoyed extremely rich interactions outside of the talks. One late arriver told me that he enjoyed reading the blog during the week he missed. I watched a theorist approach my blogger group to jokingly scold one of us for not being tougher on him. They encouraged us and showed curiosity in what we thought and in our process for dividing blog work. There were no rules in the beginning, so we had the luxury of deciding both what we wanted to do and what the over arching goals would be.
The WIKI webpages were also self-selecting in nature. Every participant was asked to choose and join a group on one of a dozen topics and create a WIKI page relevant to rare isotope studies. There were no global instructions on format, depth, style, or even meeting times. "Pool ideas and content for webpages that would be viewed by people not in attendance- anyone in the world with internet access. Errors can be corrected by others in the group. Just do it." The broad mix of backgrounds meant handy availability of technical expertise, internet savvy and internet friendly media for posting. Everyone was qualified to make some contribution.
The general freedom was second nature. The first time a professor complained about the difficulty in filling a nuclear theory postdoc position, I posted a "Job Openings!" link. Within a few days, six jobs were posted in my blank space that I created. My worry is about the shelf life of this proceedings style. How long will it be before many are out of date and are ignored? Did our energy get sucked into making great resources that were only really useful in August 2010? This is a problem that will require creativity and attention in the future.
Scientists have gone from the chalk board, to the overhead transparency, to PowerPoint. How will we harness the internet to expand our footprints beyond the places and people we meet, beyond the borders of our own professional backyards? I am curious to find out myself, even more so now.
Dr. Meredith Howard is a postdoc in the nuclear structure group at Rutgers University. She works on Rare Isotope Beams and does her research work at ORNL and MSU.