Feeding the five thousand

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 17 May 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1490
  1. Colin Douglas, doctor and novelist
  1. Edinburgh

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    They feed our minds too, of course. But for the moment it is the evening of national cuisine. In a marquee the size of an aircraft hangar savoury fumes from charcoal grills and giant frying pans swirl and mingle. At serving tables and around the grills, queues have formed and people are growing restive.

    The meeting is a vast international one and the queuing reflects this. At some tables there are queues—of sorts—at both ends, plus a mob of determined don't knows assailing the middle. Nowhere has the British style—austere, linear, and strictly no touch—made much impact.

    The chefs take delight in their art, not least the delight of slowly grilling fastidious portions of mouth watering kebabs in front of impatient mobs of 50 or 100. The same scene is repeated 15 or 20 times round the huge marquee. Local music threatens. Pleasure, St Thomas à Kempis tells us somewhere, is least found where it is most sought.

    At the scientific session next morning the scene is quite different. There is more than enough of everything to go round: simultaneous three hour sessions of 10 minute presentations in five or six lecture theatres, two floors of poster presentations, and not a queue in sight—at least until coffee time.

    A session picked at random from the intricate, sprawling programme may or may not be typical. Slides are crowded, hostile to the eye. Talks are mumbles, rehearsed precisely to time but not alas for comprehensibility. English, the language of Shakespeare, air traffic control, and half the world's tarts and beggars, serves also as the language of international science. Something has to.

    A speaker takes questions and is near speechless off his text. It must take rare courage to memorise a 10 minute talk in an unknown tongue. Just watching is bad enough: I sweat with him. Face is visibly lost. To spare him the chairman kindly notes that time is passing. Chairman and speaker shake hands and exchange fixed smiles in front of a huge conference logo. There is a volley of flash bulbs and a record of his brave proud moment, destined for a departmental wall in some other far off city. Face is regained, more or less. Next please.

    And next. And next. And next. Slides and mumbles, slides and I-speak-your-weight talk, slides and international scientific English, in all its painstaking variety. By lunchtime a feeling akin to being trapped without limit of time in the wrong airport. Mayday. Mayday.

    There is a need to reflect. The sun is shining and several tourist attractions are within easy walking distance. Now comes evidence, if only from the numbers of identical conference satchels in the art gallery, the cathedral, and on the streets, that a great many of us have felt the need for time to reflect on the scientific riches of the morning. Guilt, never strong, begins to seep away.

    In a sunny piazza a couple of people from Edinburgh are having coffee. One of them has been trying to contact me for weeks. My attempts to return his calls have been just as futile. Over coffee and ice cream in Mediterranean spring sunshine we sort out the matter that has so long eluded solution at home. Eventually a nice man from Falkirk joins us. A couple of beers seems a good idea. Who could possibly contend that these vast international scientific meetings are a waste of time? For what better means will ever be devised for keeping in touch with one's colleagues?

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