S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen

The Power of Free Things

I realized on Monday that history conferences should offer more free stuff. Why spend what publicity money there is on fliers when publishers could be giving away pens advertising books about writing, decks of cards advertising books about games, or erasers advertising books about world domination? If only more of our work received corporate sponsorship, we could be giving away stuffed manticore dolls at talks about bestiaries, holographic postcards at talks about travel literature, and pins at talks about historical political situations.

A well-placed freebie is a fine way of engaging transient interest in a subject more deeply. Example A is the free eel I received on Monday night as part of the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition. A free eel! I'm still excited about it. The eel is a plushie, a handy cue to the acronym EELS, or Electron Energy Loss Spectroscopy; now there's an acronym I wouldn't've bothered to try to memorize if it weren't for liking the stuffed mnemonic so much.

I had thought that going to the Royal Society open day would be a combo of historic building tourism with science fair, and it was. But what I hadn't realized is the importance of freebies to the event as well. (Can you tell I don't go to science conferences on a regular basis?) I came home with a pencil made from recycled money, a holographic postcard of Mars, a handy reference wheel all about the daily body clock, an eraser advertising an astrophysics department, a cloth bag advertising electron microscopy, and lots of glossy sheets of paper to remind me of what I read and learned and saw. There were model paper airplanes to remind one of the 3-D video on the component materials in jet engines, and frisbees, which had something to do with either renewable energy, or perhaps the importance of forest trees.

Of course, there was more to the event than just free stuff. Other than the eel, the highlight of the trip was seeing the muon box, an airtight box of tubes filled with argon. Whenever a muon passed through - yes, a stray, heavy, space-originating subatomic particle - its energy animated the gas enough to produce flashes of light. It was mesmerising and relaxing, like a fieldfull of fireflies. I was delighted to see John Harrison's own regulator clock, the Robert Hooke papers which were much-discussed in the media a few months back, and to watch one of our group fly around a Martian volcano while eating "Mars rock" candy.

And to be fair to the fair, the freebies do follow the research money. Some of the freebies advertised university departments, but more were specifically underwritten by corporations involved in the research. My eel isn't just a mnemonic - it's also an advertisement for a company which manufactures electron transmission microscopes. Even at the Royal Society fair, the historical booths were slightest on freebies. All the takeaways from the Robert Hooke papers and the Harrison clock were glossy pieces of paper - and a flier advertising the forthcoming book on the subject.

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