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Ken Tapping, August 6, 2008

In the sky this week...

> Around 9 p.m. Jupiter dominates the southeastern sky.

> Mars, Saturn and Venus are low in the sunset twilight.

> The Moon reaches First Quarter on August 8.


This July Canada hosted a major international space science meeting: the 37th Scientific Assembly of COSPAR, the international Committee on Space Research. It was held at the magnificent Palais de Congrès in Montréal. The hosting organizations were the National Research Council, the Canadian Space Agency and a group of Canadian universities.

For eight days scientists working in many aspects of space and space-related work, from all over the world, came to present their work, learn what everyone else is doing, and to get together in groups clogging corridors, stairs and any available space to talk science, face-to-face. The event was also a chance for Canada to strut its stuff to the world.

These days, thanks to the Internet and video conferencing we have better contact with our colleagues around the world than ever before. However, face-to-face conversations with new people, and having something you had never thought of brought into your mind in someone's presentation or a chance meeting in the corridor is not something you can achieve electronically. That's why we travel thousands of kilometres to science meetings. There really is no substitute.

Science meetings come in a range of sizes. The smallest is the "seminar", where an invited scientist gives a single presentation on his work to a group of interested colleagues and students. The next size up is the "workshop". This is a meeting focussed on a single scientific topic, with relatively informal presentations and lots of time for questions, discussions and swapping ideas. An example is the annual "Canadian Solar Workshop", where scientists and students from all over Canada, together with a few international invitees, get together to discuss solar and solar-related science. Workshops are easily my favourite types of science meeting.

Next size up is the "Conference". These are usually organized by national or international organizations, such as the Canadian Astronomical Society. These are big, with multiple sessions running in parallel, and a business meeting or two thrown in. If you want to pick a talk in one session and then a talk in another it takes some planning and often some fast legwork. This can be completely scrambled if a speaker does not turn up, so all the other talks move up one, and you arrive as the talk you wanted to attend is finishing.

Assemblies are mega-meetings, lasting a week or more, with many sessions running in parallel. Planning what talks to attend can be really difficult. The range of topics is amazing.

At the COSPAR assembly I attended sessions on space weather and solar physics, which are my research topics. I also got to discussions of the latest results in Mars exploration, lunar research, searching for planets orbiting other stars, life on other planets and so on. I came home with many new ideas. In addition we reported to scientists and engineers from all over the world on the innovative work we are doing with Industry Canada on protecting our observatory from radio interference. One very nice thing: the man who registered me for the conference said he likes my articles. I like science meetings.

Ken TappingKen Tapping is an astronomer at the National Research Council Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (NRC-HIA), and is based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, BC, V2A 6J9 Tel (250) 493-2277, Fax (250) 493-7767,