Geert Somsen talks about 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?

In this recent talk at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, Geert Somsen addressed these questions. Click here to watch the talk on YouTube.

He drew on the findings from the European research project The Scientific Conference: A Social, Cultural, and Political History.

The questions mentioned above 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.

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.

The talk built 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.

Geert Somsen was the Fall 2022 Röhm and Haas Fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. His work focuses on scientific internationalism, both as an ideology and as a practice. Ideologically, he has analysed 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 civilisation 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.

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