Dispatches from AAAS

The big news from the annual science conference

Boston - The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting concluded here today. Every year, the extravaganza inspires an incredible amount of science news, but for a media critic, that makes it nearly impossible to parse and weigh everything.

So, with that said, I will simply note some of the bigger stories to emerge from the meeting. (I would, however, encourage all readers to go to Google News, search for “American Association for the Advancement of Science,” and explore the results - one of the nice things about the AAAS conference is that it provokes a lot of short articles on “small” science that wouldn’t usually make it into the press.)

One of the first major releases at the meeting was a map of the world’s oceans that is color-coded to show the where humans have had the greatest impact from seventeen different activities (fishing, shipping, climate change, pollution, etc.). The headline coming out the conference - there’s not a lot pristine water left; the Knight Science Journalism Tracker has a good round up of related stories.

Oceans, generally, were a bit topic at AAAS meeting. Another press favorite (and an obvious one considering the combination of important findings and opportunity for meaty language): research predicts warming oceans around Antarctica “could unleash an invasion” of new predators (who avoid the extreme cold) like sharks and crabs that could “decimate the region’s fragile, biologically diverse ecosystem.” The quotes are from New Scientist, but there is a host of other articles to choose from. Other research presented at the conference led to stories about sharks as threatened, not threat, and tuna in trouble, too.

In the realm of health and human behavior, obesity was perhaps the most consequential topic, coverage-wise. The resulting articles discussed the condition’s links to childhood development, cities and climate change. Equally glum news was the worrisome forecast by a Nobel Prize-winning biologist that an HIV vaccine may not happen. It was actually disappointing, though, that these meaningful topics didn’t seem (it’s hard to gauge perfectly) to get as much play as the popular release of a new, an ostensibly more accurate, statistical method for judging the prowess of major league baseball players. Another “fun,” but not entirely consequential story that got widespread media attention was the prediction that computers will match or beat human IQ with artificial intelligence by 2030.

Extraterrestrial science also provoked a lot of coverage (and, to my fanciful mind, a little malicious delight among meeting organizers). The second day began with the announcement that Mars may be too salty for life. That was probably very discouraging news for space buffs, but any hand-wringing would have lasted only a couple days, until one of the event’s final panels trumpeted research which posits that the solar system and galaxy might be home to many more planets than previously thought, some possibly Earth-like and with the potential for life.

In addition to these pack journalism stories, I’ll point out two of my favorite one-off articles, one fun, one meaningful. The former comes from The Boston Globe, which seems to be the only news outlet to report on a fascinating panel that I spotted in the meeting guide book, but couldn’t attend. It was about the science of creating mechanical puzzles (jigsaws and otherwise) and the Globe wrote a profile of one of the speakers, who is one of the few people engaged in the unusual occupation. The latter mention goes to Alexis Madrigal at Wired, who did an excellent job blogging the meeting and appears to be the only reporter who covered an interesting keynote speech by Nicholas Negroponte, who discussed his efforts at the MIT Media Lab and the non-profit One Laptop Per Child.

There are, of course, many more stories on many more subjects that came out of the AAAS meeting. In addition, there were a number of outlets, from Discover magazine, to the journal Nature, to the Web site Ars Technica, live-blogging the event. And if this round up isn’t enough for you, then check out the one over at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. It’s a big week for science news, and there is enough of it out there to fill even the most voracious appetites.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.