The scientific talk, either as a seminar or at a conference, is usually the place where scientists provide an early-warning sign and lay claim to a new idea or a new area of research.

For a young scientist, it can be a terrifying experience. The senior people in his or her field will be there, occupying the front couple of rows, glaring up balefully (or so it seems). In my own field, there was one particularly terrifying member. Old and deaf, he had an elaborate hearing contraption, consisting of an earpiece connected by wire to a black box that housed a microphone, and which he would hold out towards the speaker from his seat in the front row, or put down in obvious boredom. Only when I became more senior myself, and once sat next to him, did I discover his secret. The box was actually a music player (Wagner was his favourite) and all he was doing was listening to the music. He never switched the microphone on at all.

It has to be admitted that most conference talks and seminars are pretty boring, and one has to really look out for the gems. One of the greatest for me was when Peter Higgs gave us a talk in Bristol about how he came to the idea of the Higgs boson (this was just after the experimental evidence for its existence had been discovered). Only a few people in the audience could have followed the maths, but the story, told in Peter’s characteristically softly-spoken manner, was an absolute revelation.

By contrast, I remember a conference where a new technique for examining the structure of large biological molecules was the focus. The talks droned on, the molecules got larger and larger, the spectra became ever more complicated, and the speakers reveled in the complexity. Finally, I asked my only question: “So what?”

It did not go down well.

I got my comeuppance at a conference in Toronto where I was announcing results from my own very complex technique for following the way in which two biological membranes approached and eventually fused. Proudly I said that even a slight variation in the experimental conditions would have led to very different results. A Nobel Prize winner in the audience asked “Why did you do it then?”

Twenty years later, I am still trying to figure out an answer.

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