The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.
– Peter Drucker
Last week I attended a conference in Los Alamos, the ominous sounding Nuclear Explosives Code Development Conference. I can’t make the usual sort of summary of a meeting that I’d ordinarily write about, but I will offer a few high level comments. There certainly were some memorable talks during the week. They offered some great new ideas in computational physics or a much needed progress report on important work.
Strength lies in differences, not in similarities
As an example a Los Alamos group is working on an interesting multiscale method that offers the combination of increased computational efficiency and better answers in one tidy package. Lawrence Livermore showed some really interesting efforts in several areas including advanced shock hydrodynamic methods using high order methods, and progress on an age old problem of combining particles with interface tracking. Despite these highlights among others, the best and most important thing about the meeting was what happened when talks were not being given.
Over coffee and snacks, at lunch, or at dinner we all ate, drank and talked together about the challenges our community faces. In addition we had the opportunity to meet new people, catch up with old friends and have deep conversations about everything going on in the community. Nothing compares to the sort of exchange that you can have face-to-face in the flesh. Electronic communication is no substitute. For a community that doesn’t have the full breadth of modern communication available to it due to security concerns it is even more important. Even then the human connection and social construct of “breaking bread” cannot be replicated. No technological advance can change the importance of that dynamic. Outside of work hours at dinner or over drinks, you can get to know people far better, and exchange frank comments, tell stories and help build community.
Social capital may turn out to be a prerequisite for, rather than a consequence of, effective computer-mediated communication.
The only problem with this is the limits and paperwork the government is putting on conference attendance. The meeting as a result is smaller than it should be and the impact on the community loses some of its power to make things better. These meetings are unique opportunities to get everyone on the same page, and surface important issues. The cost to the community is far greater than any amount of money that is saved by the current policy.
With the extreme challenges facing us in terms of the long-term prospects for stewardship without testing coupled to changes in computing, the community needs all the unity it can get. The challenges we face are immense. As a matter of fact the challenges are probably even greater than commonly acknowledged. A poorly attended meeting is lost opportunity and an unnecessary impediment to progress.
Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.