Last week some 18,000 scientists from around the world descended on Orlando, Florida for the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. Though the venue left much to be desired — the Orlando convention center and hotel complex is like a really boring version of Las Vegas — the conference was a godsend for an outsider like me, who is trying to fathom this sprawling field. For five days I moved from session to session, filling a thick notebook. I began typing up my notes on the flight back to New Mexico — what probably amounts to 10,000 words.
Some of the talks were, for me, barely comprehensible. As I furiously jotted I would add marginalia — notes to myself about concepts that flabbergasted or confused me. Sometimes I would feel the satisfying click of two scraps of information coming together to form an idea and ideas joining into a realization. Surrounded by laptops and iPads, I felt like the last of the old-fashioned note takers. But I think there is something to be said for my method. By the time I have listened to a lecture and typed up my scribbling — annotating it with background information pulled from the web — the message is engrained more deeply in my brain.
This morning on bloggingheads.tv, I talk about the meeting with my colleague John Horgan. We also discuss an essay I wrote recently for the New York Times on radiation fear. (Please note that during the final segment of our dialogue I misspeak, saying “radon miners” when of course I meant uranium miners. Colorless gases are difficult to remove with shovels.) Meanwhile I am formulating several more pieces for the Times on the science of cancer — an intellectual problem so fascinating that sometimes one forgets for a moment the suffering involved.