Why Gather? Reflections on the History and Future of Scientific Conferences
Why do scientists go to conferences? What happens at face-to-face meetings that cannot be done at a distance? These questions have acquired great poignancy with the suspension of conferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many conference-goers came to see online forms of gathering (Zoom, Teams, etc.) as better alternatives, offering greater inclusivity and a much smaller carbon footprint. Others feel that on-screen meetings are just not the real thing, although they often find it hard to point out what is missing.
In this talk Geert Somsen spoke to the debate on the future of conferences by drawing on their history. Why did scientists suddenly start to meet, en masse and at regular intervals, after centuries without such gatherings? What did they do at conferences and how did these concentrations of bodies shape their sense of disciplinary and international community? What functions did conferences perform? Somsen addressed the various answers to these questions as well as their own history. After all, the necessity of conferences themselves has often been queried, and scientists of the past have regularly considered and tried alternative forms of communication.
This talk builds on the HERA-sponsored joint research project The Scientific Conference: A Social, Cultural, and Political History, involving scholars in four different countries, that has run from 2019 till today.
About Geert Somsen
Geert Somsen is the Fall 2022 Röhm and Haas Fellow in Focus and a historian of science at Maastricht University and the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. His work focuses on scientific internationalism, both as an ideology and as a practice. Ideologically, he has analyzed how the notion of science as universal has been used to promote particular international relations, e.g. in technocratic conceptions of the British Empire and in French projections of civilization during World War I.
Recently, Somsen has turned to studying scientific conferences as practical manifestations of internationalism, focusing on the first chemical series of such meetings, the International Congress of Applied Chemistry (1893–1915). He is especially interested in how international bonds are forged at these gatherings and what the function is of typical conference routines and rituals, such as banquets and ladies’ programs. This work is part of a larger European Union–sponsored project called The Scientific Conference: A Social, Cultural, and Political History, involving several partners, including the Science History Institute.
About Fellow in Focus
The Rohm and Haas Fellow in Focus Lecture series gives the Institute’s scholars an opportunity to present their work to a broad audience interested in history, science, and culture. Fellow in Focus lectures are presented by the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry.