I am in Seattle this week, attending the 225th conference of the American Astronomical Society. I will be giving a presentation at one of this evening’s sessions.
Normally, such would not be a huge deal. I’ve spent a large part of my professional life giving presentations and teaching to large lecture halls full of students. However, as time goes on, I’ve noticed a definite decline in my cognitive capabilities. I have trouble “finding words” in mid-sentence. The process of fishing for words either leaves a moment of uncomfortable silence or a string of annoying “umms”. By the time I find the word, I’ve lost my point or how I intended on finishing the rest of the sentence or thought. Such is a killer, when giving a talk to a conference hall full of hundreds of people.
Attending these conferences provides the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and colleagues, and typically is something that I look forward to. However, my inability to remember names of people — even those with whom I spent many years, either wading through difficult physics homework together and/or (usually “and”!) co-conspiring getting into various forms of youthful “trouble” — leaves me with an awkward greeting to my friends. They say , “Hi _[insert my name]”, and all I can respond with is “heeeyyyyy!” (as if drawing out the word and making it 2 syllables somehow makes up for the memory deficiency). Name tags help, but why do they always twist around on the lanyard, print side-down? And if they do, by chance, happen to be sunny-side up, they are often hanging down so low as to make name-checking super obvious (“hey, my eyes are up here!”). All this to say: I no longer enjoy these social opportunities, but rather find them mentally draining and personally demeaning.
For tonight’s presentation, I plan on carrying up to the stage with me some written “prompts”, a strategy I have tremendous disdain for, and which (in my profession) is never done (except perhaps in the case of a graduate student giving a public presentation for the very first time, in which case the offender is readily forgiven for their transgression). But if I struggle to remember the name of my own PhD dissertation adviser, then how on earth am I going to be able to remember words like “ortho to para conversion of the deuterated trihydrogen cation dominated by proton exchange reactions”? I doubt if it would even matter if the topic were in my own field of expertise or not (but for the record, it is not).
Well, back to those cheat notes!