Week 4: I Love Conferences

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Sunday, June 22, 2014


Caleb L. Heath

Yes, I do.

And they keep getting better and better every time I go to them. Here’s why.

We have never before had as much access to information as we do now. I can learn about (and I can’t believe spell-check knew what I meant here) Kalmyk cooking, explosive ordinance disposal, and Model T maintenance with a quick Google search. I’ll probably have videos too.

So if you have all the answers, the biggest remaining problem is phrasing your questions. Without this you cannot find the link between what you want to know and what there is to know.

I eagerly await every advance in voice interface and artificial intelligence. I would like someday for us to have the Star Trek experience where the computers can puzzle out our meaning and deal with our fuzzy queries. Until then it’s GIGO, garbage in, garbage out.

That may never change actually, which brings me back to the usefulness of the conference, or the congress or the summit or the symposium. Whatever you call it, the central principle is the same: those with a shared interest meet and discuss that interest. And a human expert, unlike our silicon friends, has a fair chance of matching their answer to your proto-question.

The excellent Jack Hehn up at AAPT previously described to me that a sort of oral tradition exists in the physics teaching community. I think that it actually extends to any endeavor, any community. The lab notebook is really a very small part of what has gone into the development of a scientific idea.

Needless to say, I had a very good time at the 2014 Noyce Conference this past Thursday and Friday. A selection of people I got to meet:

  • My old advisors, Gay and John Stewart
  • Pennsylvania Representative Chaka Fattah
  • DC Public Schools Deputy Chief of STEM Kim Cherry
  • Science vlogger Derek Muller, creator of the YouTube channel Veritasium (bonus, got to see a sneak peak of a new video)
  • Two teachers at a school I’m interviewing at on Wednesday
  • And so many more

STEM education is really a small world.

Well, aside from the professional enrichment, how was my week? Let me show you the greatest museum in DC that you’ve never heard of.

That . . . is the National Building Museum, once home to the Pension Bureau of the Post-Civil War era. Its state of the art 1887 construction paid consideration to both accessibility (low, wide stairs with handrails for aging veterans) and worker health (an innovative, passive ventilation system and fireproofing). Now it is a museum for architecture. Really though, you come to see the great central plaza.

The designer took inspiration from an Italian palazzo and gave it an American touch; he scaled it up to twice the size. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the Inaugural Ball, you've seen the museum, though they completely transform it for functions. You can have your wedding here if you like. Only $10k.

I think it's actually a bargain, as far as extravagances go.

Caleb L. Heath