I’ve been going to scientific meetings, congresses and conferences, national and international, since 1982. That’s 37 years, all told. And in that time I’ve probably been a participant at every kind of scientific meeting you can imagine. I’ve attended (and delivered for that matter) plenary sessions, workshops, think tanks, poster sessions, breakout groups, brainstorms, advisory panels, executive committees, you name it. I’ve heard presentations as short as five minutes or as long as two hours (both scheduled for an hour, the former reducing the session chair to 55 minutes of embarrassed coughs while scanning the audience for any movements that might portend a question.
In the latter case, the speaker delivered a sort of free-form jazz improvisation kind of lecture, laid-back and self-indulgent when it should have been incisive and punchy. When this eventually ground to a halt, the session chair intervened briskly to douse any remaining embers that might be coaxed into life. Sad to say but the speaker was a Nobel laureate and should have known better. And no, I’m not going to name him. Or her.
Some meetings have been small enough to fit in my living room and, before you comment, I do not live in a Saxon castle or Tudor baronial manor. My living room is little more than a couple of sofas and the dog occupies one of those, growling if people try to dislodge him. Hardly a major conference venue. I can’t even promise any catering. At a pinch, I can probably run to some chocolate hobnobs. And I’m pretty sure I saw some fig rolls at the back of the cupboard the other day.
Other meetings have been huge, filling venues the size of football stadia. Each year the Society for Neuroscience draws some 35,000 neuroscientists to one or other American city. In truth, only a tiny handful of cities, even in America, can accommodate what amounts to an entire army. Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was smaller when he crossed the Potomac and headed to Washington. The logistics of conferences on this scale make the Normandy landings look like a fraternity beach party.
I’ve come to realise that one thing is common to all conferences, big or small. I’m talking, of course, about the conference bag. You know, that absurd sack emblazoned with an embarrassingly colourful logo that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot seem to hide. And bear in mind that there may be tens of thousands of these, all identical, within the area of the conference centre. It’s only a matter of time before you accidentally pick up somebody else’s.
I’ll let you into my dark secret. I used to collect conference bags. There, I said it. I’ve been to over a hundred conferences over the years and have brought home conference bags from most of those.
Why, I hear you all ask. Well, those of you that aren’t already scrolling down.I think it’s because they are so varied. In size, shape, number of straps, size and number of compartments, organisation, colour, materials and so on. There seems to be no unified or agreed standard on what makes the definitive conference bag. Some are almost like carrier bags. Others are highly compartmentalised, like Oriental medicine cabinets. But, like fingerprints, no two conference bags are the same.
Back in the 80s, the conference bag had very simple criteria – it had to be large enough to accommodate the program and abstract booklet for the meeting, along with the usual handful of flyers for scientific instruments, more conferences in the Far East, a biro that never worked and a notepad. Usually your conference name badge was in there as well, often with the safety pin open, ready to draw blood. And that was it. The flyers and other promotional material went straight into the first bin you found on your stroll round the exhibition hall looking for freebies.
Over the years the conference bag evolved. By the mid-90s there were little pouches for your mobile phone, a larger zipped section for your laptop and the usual loops to hold biros, still unreliable. Gone were the notepad (who wrote notes on paper anymore when you had laptops) and the obligatory CD-ROM of the conference proceedings and abstracts.
By the time we were comfortably into the third millennium, there was no need for a mobile phone pouch. The cellphone was the size of a crispbread and fitted comfortably in your trouser pocket. You didn’t even need to wear the special trousers any more. The large laptop section was replaced by a tiny pochette for your iPad and nobody used Biros any more. As for the CD-ROM, it too was now in some elephant graveyard of redundant apparatus, replaced by a simple web link. The conference bag was smaller and smarter.
Even the materials have changed. Gone are the leatherette briefcases that smelt like the interior of the 1960s Cortina. Out too are the girly over-the-shoulder tote bags (really, who thought that was a good idea?). Minimalist seems to be the idea now. Small and minimalist. And made of biodegradable materials. The WPC bag for 2016 was essentially a small hessian handbag. A neat design and popular with all. Perhaps it’s only design flaw was the incredibly fiddly and unhelpful clasp. Bear in mind that more than 1000 of the conference attendees had Parkinson’s, with significantly compromised dexterity. Still it kept the fingers working. Often for hours.
I have thrown out nearly all of my conference bag archive. The Science Museum have stopped answering my phone calls. So the whole lot went in the bin and will doubtless, in centuries to come, be rediscovered in some piece of landfill and puzzle archaeologists of the time.
I have kept one. Only one. But it’s a special one. From the 2007 ECNP (European College of NeuroPsychopharmacology) meeting in Vienna. A thing of beauty and design brilliance, it is the Swiss Army knife of conference bags. It has pouches for everything from (working) Biros through to changes of underwear. Space for iPads, kneepads and keypads. And the whole thing falls into a neat backpack. I use it as a mobile office – with pens, paper, staplers, hole punches, a paper shredder and a photocopier.
Okay, I lied about the last two.