The Producers

We received this letter from investigator Jonathan E. Snow

Dear AIR,

When I recently received the invitation to address the 10th annual World Congress of Science Producers recently in Berlin, I was naturally delighted. As a professional producer of Earth science research, widely ignored for the past 10 years, I was naturally happy to be invited to strut my stuff in a new forum, though puzzlingly one I’d never heard of.

Professor Hubert Markl addressed the conference about the difference between science producers and science television producers.

So I packed up my aging tweed jacket once again, deciding that the elbows were still solid enough (just) to forego leather patches, at least this time. I became even more confused though when I arrived at the conference venue (in geology, we often use youth hostels), to find myself in an alien universe of walnut, hand-polished brass, premium cigar smoke, pictures of US presidents taken in the lobby, and designer suits.

The opening speech of the conference was held by Professor Hubert Markl, a prominent German biologist and the only person ever to have been president of both the Max-Planck Society and the German Research Foundation (DFG). During his speech the light dawned: I had somehow been invited to a conference of television producers whose subject was science! The makers of NOVA and the Discovery Channel for example were in attendance. I also learned that Professor Markl himself doesn’t watch television, scientific or otherwise: directing major science institutions is busy work. Professor Markl made a point of explaining to the delegates that there are people called “scientists” who are producers of science, and that this is a different thing than making TV shows about it. I wasn’t sure exactly how to interpret the wave of laughter that went through the room.

The sessions were very interesting and informative. They revolved for the most part around such topics as whether a vacuum cleaner or an express train is better for reproducing the sound of an asteroid flying through space. Or whether 5 million years from now in the future, seagulls will evolve into giant aquatic whale-like creatures with meter-long bills. I myself felt at sea in a world of scientific ideas wholly unfamiliar to me. My own session was mercifully thinly attended, as my co-panelists were Prof. Walter Heckl of Munich, who is known as the German Carl Sagan, and Wolfgang Enard, whose theories on the genetic origin of speech were on the cover of Germany’s premiere news magazine Der Spiegel that week. The organizers fortunately had scheduled at the same time the apparently far more popular session entitled “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”, which was packed.

Professor Brian Greene presented his current series on Superstring Theory “The Elegant Universe” based on his bestselling book of the same name.

Each evening, lavishly sponsored receptions were held in ever more sumptuous locales; the Museum of Telecommunications, and the Bärensaal in Berlin’s former City Hall, built by the Kaiser, for example. I discovered that it possible to get a complete balanced diet from the hors d’ouvres that went around at the receptions. To top it off, for the final ceremonial dinner they rented the Reichstag, the seat of the German Federal Parliament. We were serenaded by the Grammy award-nominated Southwest German Radio Big Band, who reproduced some of the American hits of the late forties and early fifties still immensely popular here. In their absolute intonation and rhythmic precision they gave lie to Miles Davis’s famous comment about musicians not of color, which I won’t repeat here.

The final day was crowned by a presentation by Columbia University physicist Brian Greene of his soon-to-be hit series on String theory “The Elegant Universe” based on his deservedly bestselling book of the same name. The audience discussion touched on the fact that Professor Greene is a very sexy man, who would look very good with an oiled chest on the cover of GQ. The word “studmuffin” was used, in apparent reference to the 1998 “Studmuffins of Science” calendar. Fortunately, an American delegate roundly scolded those making such comments as “inappropriate”, apologizing to any men in the audience who may have been made uncomfortable by those remarks.

I was highly impressed by the conference, the delegates, the science shows, and the amount of money they all seem to be able to toss around. All in all, I have decided that it is much better to be a science producer than a producer of science.

PD Dr. Jonathan E. Snow
Max-Planck Institut für Chemie, Abt. Geochemie
Postfach 3060, D-55020 Mainz, Germany
[email protected]

© Copyright 2002 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)

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