Stopped by Technology 8/26/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Meetings of the American Chemical Society, especially local ones, are kind of a funny thing. In graduate school, sometime around 1990 when office software, including presentation software, was still relatively new, I attended such a local meeting of chemical professionals. What I’ve always thought was funny is how giddy attendees get when certain “big names” are scheduled to attend. They’re kind of like rock stars at these things. They’re not colleagues; they have some big publications, big grants, and there’s a feel as if other scientists, published with grants of their own, can’t wait to get an autograph. Oh, sure, there are a lot of other people presenting, but oh wow, this one huge name is coming.

I remember many of these “huge names”, and yes, they’re very good, but I still think of them as colleagues, even when I was but a graduate student. Oh, sure, I was still learning, but isn’t that the point of science, to be forever learning?

The thing that stands out about this one meeting in particular is that this huge name presenter showed up with a laptop from a less than common computer company named after a rather popular fruit and my personal favorite sin. When the time was coming for him to give his presentation, he could not hook it up to the projector. This was before things like Bluetooth and other modern conveniences, and they just couldn’t figure it out.

I sat in the audience as the lecture started to be late, then ten minutes late, then twenty minutes late just wondering what the issue was. I get that there were technological issues, and as the host of the meeting called in their computer technology experts, they just kept fidgeting and trying different things. The lecture finally started some forty minutes later as we all sat waiting for this impressive speaker to begin.

The entire time I wondered why we were waiting. Too many speakers these days rely on their presentations. They pack each slide with information, and basically read it off to the audience when, frankly, if they can read, they don’t even need the speaker. I’m very different; I put some key points on the presentation (on the rare occasion where I use one), but the most prescient points are not on the slides. Yes, graphs and equations are excellent ways to visually drive my points home, but I don’t need them.

I kept wondering why this speaker needed his presentation software. Surely, he knows what is on the presentation, he knows the experiments performed (usually by graduate students and post-docs at his level), and he surely knows the results, so why didn’t he just begin the lecture? Yes, it would be better with the graphs, and honestly, the computing services personnel did get the system to work that it would have been available before he finished, but I was very unimpressed that he couldn’t just continue without it.

I had a group of students in a research project with technological problems when they were ready to give their presentation. The course was team taught; I was one of three faculty. There were supposed to be five, but I was brand-new and the other two faculty knew what the two other faculty were like and refused to team teach with them. When these students were ready to give their presentation and having problems, of the three faculty, I was the only one who stood up and walked to the podium to offer help. When I realized the problem was beyond my ability to repair, I spoke with them and asked if they could present their findings without their presentation. I was extremely proud of these students when they told me that yes, indeed, they could give their presentation without the visuals. I made an announcement to the audience of the problems and the plan, when one of these other two faculty insisted that, no, they had to go to computing services and try to recover. Frankly, it was embarrassing that they were too lazy to get up to help, but still exerted their authority over me, still a new faculty member, when we made the decision.

But the point isn’t how disappointing these faculty were, but how proud I was of these students. They were better, in my opinion, than this impressive scientist who couldn’t give his presentation even as a seasoned scientist. Computers are supposed to be tools, intended to assist people, not to have people serve them. It’s a funny thing that I will never forget this speaker or my group of students, but in my mind, only one was truly heroic.

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