The fire alarm

How to organize a spontaneous scientific conference, in 27 easy steps

It was a sunny morning in mid-May, the S-Bahn wasn’t on strike, the air was thick with the scent of lilacs and millions of allergens and the songs of birds who hadn’t yet figured out how to find partners on-line. A perfect day for a barbecue or, as things turned out, a fire alarm. At around 11 am the doors of House 31.1 opened, ejecting about 400 scientists. In the spirit of quantitative biology, I’d like to provide a more precise number, but they didn’t hold still long enough to be counted. (I can tell you, however, that p = 0.0011.) Their behavior might have reminded you of the efflux of molecules from a ruptured, apoptotic cell. Or perhaps not.

Without any facts, it was difficult to formulate a hypothesis that could explain a sudden, mass exodus of biologists. Had everyone simply decided to go to lunch at precisely the same moment? That seemed highly unlikely, statistically speaking, but in a stochastic universe that’s 13.798 billion years old, it’s bound to happen once or twice. Or were we witnessing the effects of some as-yet unknown biological mechanism, one that stimulated spontaneous migratory behavior in scientists?

I saw Walter Birchmeier standing on the lawn – was Wnt signaling involved? It’s always a good candidate when you have a migratory phenotype. Wnt helps regulate the motility of cancer cells; if you augmented its activity a trillion-fold, would it have the same effect on cancer scientists? But why did it affect only House 31.1? Was some sort of parasitic microRNA on the loose? Was there any connection to the microbiome of the belly button? Or chickens?

If I were a scientist, I could have grabbed some piece of equipment from the lab – maybe a liquid chromatography mass spectrometer, or a magic-angle NMR machine, and headed out to look for the mechanism. But the only high-throughput technology in my office is the coffee machine. So I’d have to rely on more primitive methods of scientific discovery, like asking somebody what was going on.

I saw Undine Hill standing by the blue bear; that morning on the bus she’d told me she’d spent the whole night preparing for her PhD committee meeting. “How did it go?” I said.

“Everything was going okay,” she said. “Until the fire alarm.”

That’s serendipity in science for you: often the best way to get an answer is to ask the wrong question. The signal that had sent everybody outside was a fire alarm. This didn’t necessarily exclude Wnt, but it certainly shifted the research focus. Further investigation yielded the locus of the problem: a defective microwave oven on the fifth floor. “It wasn’t my fault,” said Luiza Bengtsson.

By now people were drifting over from other buildings to join in the festivities, like immune cells attracted to cytokines, dendritic cells to brain tumors, and neighbors to your barbecue. Scientists from different floors and labs formed brief aggregates out on the lawn, engaged in some mutual phosphorylation, and then drifted off to join some other group. This went on until a fire truck appeared, causing an amyloid-like formation on the side of the road.

People were discussing the standard topics among scientists: writing a dissertation, watching football, watching football while writing a dissertation, why the third referee on a paper is always a sadistic lunatic, where to buy impact points on the global black market, whether to leave science and become a sheep farmer, whether a union between a bioinformaticist and a Drosophilist could produce fertile offspring… that kind of thing. A student recounted his epic combat with the Experiment from Hell: a routine protocol that worked perfectly up to the moment you really needed it, at which point it always failed. Almost as if it knew, as if it were out to get you.

Somebody said, “Have you ever noticed that everything we work on is invisible? Sometimes I wonder if it’s really there,” to which his friend said, “It’s there unless you moved it,” which caused someone else to chime in: “Last week a technician dropped a molecule somewhere on the bench and we still haven’t found it – can somebody loan me an antibody?”

Here and there you’d hear a bit of real science; somebody would be describing a problem with a project and get a much-needed tip. I realized I wasn’t watching a cell – the lawn had become a spontaneous, self-organizing mini-conference. Like when you’re shopping in KaDeWe and suddenly, from three floors, a choir starts singing the Hallelujah chorus. Some of it’s out of tune – Doppler shifts from the sopranos on the escalators – but it’s still darned impressive.

Of course fire alarms cost money, disrupt committee meetings, and you may have to write them into your experimental protocols. But they also can pay off in ways you’d never predict. I’m sure that out there on the lawn, somebody got an idea, or started a relationship – I’m referring to a collaboration rather than a romance although the two aren’t mutually exclusive. If you were there and that happened to you (I’m talking about the science, not the romance), let me know and I’ll insert your story here. You can tell me about the romance, too, but I won’t reprint it.

It was good to be reminded of the importance of chance encounters in science – they’re an important reason for conferences, and they can be stimulated by institutional structures such as technology platforms, courses and workshops, and seminars. The most powerful catalysts, though, are often the informal ones, which is why some of us have long dreamed of a campus working café. With the right atmosphere and location, it would quickly become a hub of campus life – as has happened in so many other places.

The thing about a fire alarm or drill is that everybody has to go. As I stood out on the lawn, I realized that one thing would have made this even better: if House 31.1 were home to an equal number of PhDs and MDs. We’re developing a virtual house with the Berlin Institute of Health – in that project, what will be the equivalent of a fire drill? Will there be a real, physical lawn where everyone has to assemble when it rings? What sort of fire code will be needed to drive them out of their labs and onto the lawn?

Those issues aside, I’ll close with a central issue in fire alarms – namely, what to do when you’re confronted by actual flames. Here I refer you to a small book of etiquette written by Mark Twain, with an entire chapter on behavior at fires. It’s full of all sorts of useful tips, such as how to propose marriage to a woman while rescuing her from a burning building.

The most helpful part, though, is a list that ranks people according to the order in which they should be rescued. There are 27 items, starting with your fiancée, whom you should save first. Second on the list is any woman for whom you have affections that you have not yet expressed. (If you choose to propose to her on this occasion, he provides a brief speech that you should memorize in advance.) He also explains what to do if you accidentally save #12 on the list before #10 (no, you shouldn’t necessarily take #12 back into the fire, but you should apologize to #10, using another speech to be memorized).

Clergymen are to be rescued at position 19 – after pets, if I remember correctly – but my favorite part is the very end, which reads as follows:

24. Landlord
25. Firemen
26. Furniture

Finally, when every other individual and object has been brought to safety, you are free to rescue…

27. Mothers-in-law.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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