Paratrooper Speakers

Given that the Christmas period is upon us, but the rate of things to do has not declined, and people keep asking me if I have completed my Christmas shopping (no! and in truth, I haven't even started) time for a Scrooge-like post.

The following may upset my colleagues, so I will lay my card on the table. I am as guilty as the next person, but I am trying very hard not to be. I no longer want to be a Paratrooper Speaker. And I think my colleague should do the same.
Conferences, meetings and workshops have long been seen as an important aspect in astronomy (and a lot of academia). The chance to get together, hear some great talks discuss some good science, meet people and network. A chance for Early Career Researchers to meet some of those names on papers, and see just what is going on.

I am going to reminisce about the good old days, about conferences I went to when I was a student. Once, I got invited, after the conference dinner, to sit at the table with Geoffrey BurbidgeMartin Rees, and (I think - although this was a long time ago) Jerry Ostriker. The names do not matter, but I was sitting at a table with the greats in the field, who were having a roving, robust discussion. It was terrifying (for me as a student), but great.

But I've noticed something happening over the years, something that has been bothering me more and more. I know we are all getting busier and busier, and our time conferences are squeezed by committees, administration and just other things.

So, some (but not all!!) senior researchers have been spending less and less time at meetings. Don't get me wrong, they go to more and more actual meetings, and spend less and less time at each meeting.

Some might be too busy to spend an entire week at a meeting, and so they come in for a couple of days (ensuring they get their talk in), and then they are off again.
Some are so busy, they will come in for a day (the day of their talk!), and then be gone.

But now, what I see more and more, is people arriving in town only for their session, a few hours, and then they are gone.

Well, to be blunt, "Don't be so bloody rude!"

While you may think that the message you are putting out is "I'm a busy person, so be pleased that I can spend some time with you to share my brilliance", what you are really saying is "What I talk about is important and I don't really need to listen to what you have to say - information flows one way, from me to you, now I am out of here - Bazzinga".

I pointed out at the start that I have gotten into this mode, and am trying hard to change it, and properly take part in meetings. When I sign-up for a conference or meeting, I try to spend the entire time at the meeting, network, whinge at colleagues, chat with Early Career Researchers, and hopefully become one of the terrifying old guard that I sat with when I was a student.

I know those experiences had a profound impact on me. I hope the best and brightest are not making themselves so aloof and fly-by-night that the younger generation do not really get a chance to interact with them.

I hope some of my fellow senior researchers will think about their approach to attending meetings, and stop being paratrooper speakers.

Gump over. Have a Merry Christmas!


  1. I couldn't agree more. I remember one conference where A Very Famous Astronomer flew in just to give the opening remarks, then flew back out (better than flying in for the concluding remarks, perhaps).

    Some big names make a point of leaving a day early. I've seen some wannabees do the same, probably in a failed attempt to convince people they are important---reminds me of the fake mobile phones back in the early 1990s which people used just to impress people.

  2. > better than flying in for the concluding remarks, perhaps

    I have see that happen. And, in fact, it was a pretty good wrap up. The speaker had guessed exactly what the content of the meeting would be - and it convinced me to get out of that particular field.

    1. Mention the field, if not the speaker!

    2. Ultraluminous galaxies :) I think I will keep the speaker to myself!

  3. I am also going to go further and request that conference organizers do two things.

    1 - don't pick on the usual suspects, the busy, important people, to come and talk, but try and identify the person in their group who actually did the work.

    2 - don't fund the fly-by-night speakers unless they commit to spending an appreciable amount of time at the meeting.


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