Science puts itself under the microscope Baltimore convention to cover all fields

February 07, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.

From biotechnology to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, from outer space to cyberspace, from ways for teachers to make molecules more interesting to the latest advances in AIDS research, Baltimore will be abuzz with the stuff of science starting tomorrow.

More than 5,000 researchers, educators and policy-makers from the United States and abroad will descend upon the city for the six-day annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) -- widely viewed as the premier scientific event of the year.

For the scholarly devotees of the world's largest science federation, the gathering at the Baltimore Convention Center and two downtown hotels is certainly no junket.

Sure, some other conventions provide a perfect opportunity to catch up with old buddies, trade stories, attend a few seminars, then savor good food and good times at day's end.

This meeting, by contrast, means hard, cerebral work -- and a whole lot of it, nearly nonstop.

Mathematicians, biologists, archaeologists and behavioral scientists will theorize, hypothesize, postulate and take copious notes at 1,100 presentations on the latest scientific developments.

Before the meeting starts, AAAS already has planned 28 news briefings to be covered by all the major U.S. TV networks, CNN, the British Broadcasting Corp., every big newspaper in America and more than a few from abroad.

Almost instantly, the latest reported breakthrough or newsworthy research findings will be disseminated across the globe from a vast makeshift newsroom at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, where about 700 journalists will toil.

Naturally, the prestigious meeting also focuses the spotlight on Baltimore and its rising reputation as a center of science and biotechnology.

"This is one of the most prestigious and influential meetings in the world," said Rita Colwell, director of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and AAAS president. "Every meeting like this is catalytic."

Dr. Colwell said the exposure is particularly well timed in Baltimore. The city gets a chance to show off recent additions such as the Columbus Center and the Biotechnology Institute as well as older research and science anchors, including the Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland and the Maryland Science Center.

"What this meeting does is give an absolute authority to the scientific strengths in the city, that this is a very powerful science center generating new knowledge that gains attention throughout the world," Dr. Colwell said.

That sort of limelight, in turn, carries enormous potential to lure major high-tech firms, other non-science businesses and researchers to the city, Dr. Colwell and others said.

Even in the brainy world of science gatherings, this one's extraordinary. In the course of a year, a scientist may attend several conferences that pull together the latest findings in a particular specialty.

But AAAS' annual meeting is the only major gathering dedicated to the full spectrum of scientific disciplines: medicine, mathematics, astronomy, environment, physics, biology and criminology, to name a few.

Scientists will discuss the potential impact of global warming on emerging diseases, the search for extraterrestrial life, the future of AIDS vaccines, the number of people who can live on the Earth, the biological basis for addiction, artificial life in cyberspace and multiwavelength astrophysics.

Beyond the venues of such scientific pursuits, the city itself also will enjoy the limelight as the journalists shuttle among the convention center, the two other major meeting sites -- the Hyatt Regency and Stouffer Renaissance Harborplace hotels -- the newsroom at the Sheraton and, no doubt, restaurants and local dTC watering holes.

The media coverage will surpass that of any recent convention and rival the press turnout of the 1993 Major League Baseball All-Star Game or Pope John Paul II's October visit.

"It's like great free advertising for the city," said Gil Stotler, who coordinates "familiarity tours" for travel writers as part of his job at the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

The AAAS meeting also is expected to nearly sell out the estimated 5,600 downtown hotel rooms and generate some $6 million in direct spending at hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

For those scared off by one too many encounters with the periodic table or the innards of a frog, the AAAS is offering a wealth of events meant to make science more palatable and more meaningful.

"Science for All," a series of presentations open to the public, will probe such topics as "The Physics of Bungee Jumping," "Watts a Solar Car?" and "The Magic of Implosion."

Numerous attractions throughout the area will celebrate science with events, tours and free admissions to mark "Baltimore Public Science Week."

Tomorrow, "Public Science Day" brings students to various scientific organizations for hands-on demonstrations and to the convention center for a career fair. The University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Maryland Shock Trauma Center will open their doors for free tours, blood-pressure and vision screenings and lectures on drug abuse.

The user-friendly events reflect a widespread effort to move science from the lab to the living room and help the public understand its significance, said Ellen Cooper, an AAAS spokeswoman.

"We need to make science accessible for everybody," she said. "It shouldn't be just for the few. It should be taught in a way that's interesting."

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