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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.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 5th, 2006 11:59 am (UTC)
Science and IT conferences are definitely the home of cool swag. I think the last conference I went to, I came off with two stuffed animals, a grounding strap, a rear-view monitor mirror, two or three tshirts, gobs and gobs of pens and sticky pads, and a handful of other stuff I'm no longer remembering. It actually gets fairly competitive.
Jul. 5th, 2006 01:40 pm (UTC)
That rocks! I just checked their website, and it doesn't look like they're going to be doing anything while I'm in London. Dang!
Jul. 5th, 2006 02:17 pm (UTC)
Sting's next joint venture?
"Stuffed Mnemonic" would be a good name for a rock band.
Jul. 5th, 2006 03:56 pm (UTC)
Every year the Swedenborgians turn up at the AAR, and they are SUPER FLAKY but they always give away great little gifts. 'Magpie and I always seek out their booth first, and we sorta kinda feel bad as the nice lady there tries to tell us about Swedenborgian religion while we're all, "Yes, yes, but what free stuff you got?"

A few years ago they gave away these tiny keychains with lightbulbs in 'em that were printed with the words "Light of the Spirit." It just never stopped being funny. Fumbling for our keys after coming home late at night, 'Magpie and I would say to one another, "Hey, do you have your Light of the Spirit handy?"

It somehow doesn't surprise me that the only people giving out swag at a religious studies conference are religious groups, as opposed to academic ones. From the academic publishers you're lucky if you get jelly beans. Bah.
Jul. 5th, 2006 04:06 pm (UTC)
I'm rather fond of conference jelly beans, but perhaps that's just because I take delight in what little freeness there is at such conferences.

Light of the Spirit
Item Attributes:
It provides light (radius 2).
It increases your amusement by +1.
It cannot be harmed by dark.
It cannot be harmed by light.
Jul. 5th, 2006 06:21 pm (UTC)
I want a stuffed mnemonic of my very own.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 5th, 2006 09:35 pm (UTC)
I do hope you make it! The muon box is in the basement, part of the Durham Astrophysics display with the toy train and the water box.
Jul. 5th, 2006 09:36 pm (UTC)
And the Hooke notes are upstairs, in a corner of the library in the same room as the Mars display.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )