Scientists Rebelling At “Dull” Meetings


An entertaining write-up of the confrontation at the ASC congress.

Obediently following a pat format, speaker after speaker mounts the podium and reads a paper on some recent results he considers significant, as often as not showing slides which are more relevant than home movies, but no less dull. 

Afterward questions may be asked, and though these exchanges sometimes generate a little heat, the proceedings are usually models of intellectual deliberation and detachment. Here and there a head nods, a chin hits a chest.

But the activist ferment that is now shaking various parts of American society is beginning to bubble through scientific meetings. Scientists are not yet burning their society membership cards or sitting in each other’s labs but the watchwords are familiar: confrontation, participation and making-it-happen.

The ferment was most apparent at the recent Washington meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics, whose second annual meeting was disrupted by a kind of mini-insurrection.

“Why us?” plaintively asks a society official. “Why not some old, established society that can take it better?”

Where better than the cybernetics society, says activist leader Dr. Warren Brodey of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Where the subject is elegant communication between machines and men, especially in interlocking systems like automatic controls, one should spend some time discussing how communication can be best achieved at the meeting. And one should apply the latest communication techniques, he contends.


But the society had followed a scientific tradition, now some 300 years old, in programming its symposium on Cybernetics and the Management of Large Systems. and the activist decided something drastic had to be done.

“I don’t know who you are, sir,” a voice from the back of the room interrupted a paper on cybernetic analyses of large scale computers, “and this isn’t meant personally for you. But I’m tired of listening to this.”

Dr. Brodey then strode to the stage, and a five-minute demonstration followed.

“Last night,” said Dr. Brodey, who had been joined by his colleague, Dr. Avery Johnson, “the two of us talked to the board of directors. We turned that board on. Overnight some. thing has turned them off.”


The activists want to change the format of all scientific meetings to make them exciting, “to make it happen in a microcosm,” in Dr. Brodey’s words.

They came up against a conservative faction that shouted back at them from the floor: “Once you have activists, you can no longer control the bastards. When I come to listen to somebody, I want to sit and listen and then interact.” 

Society officials moved quickly to regain control. A group of them took the microphone and promised that if the speaker could be permitted to [...] of the discussion time [...] be devoted to matters of [...]

Later, society officials announced a happening for the next day’s lunch hour to discuss format. “All those interest in the happening please congeal at lunch,” said the session chairman. “You are allowed to eat during the happening so long as there is no throwing of food.”

Dr. Frank Fremont-Smith of the New York Academy of Sciences volunteered as “immoderator” of the happening. “He will serve,” said the chairman, “as a stabilizing influence to prevent violence.”

What the activists are after is a total remaking of scientific meeting format, especially in the cybernetics society.


Participants in symposia, they feel, should be immediately confronted with the problems they discuss.

At a discussion of urban problems, for example, a model of the city could be present instead of having experts come and describe the city. The room could be filled with smog and there could be an occasional bus to drown the speakers.

To this an objector responds: “Imagine trying to hold a scientific meeting on a damn free. Way.”

Six or seven sessions going on at once could be presented on closed circuit television, and a viewer could turn his attention to what interests him at the moment. The viewer could interject comments or questions by a TV feedback.

Such proceedings could be recorded on tape, edited and sent around to interested parties. To the tapes could be added by the receivers and a continuing interchange could develop.

Similar suggestions are also rising to plague the established powers of several “old, established” scientific societies, including the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society and the American Geophysical Union — but with less verve.