Tuesday Morning Meetings

Not only did I start my empirical observations in weekly group meetings, it also became clear to me over time that the effective functioning of the planetary research group hinges upon these meetings. To provide a vivid impression of these meetings and how they proceed, but also to show the kind of empirical data that I gathered at the beginning of my field work, I will present fragments of edited field notes in this section. These edited notes are based on handwritten notes which I took while in the meeting and which I later rewrote so as to make them accessible to people other than myself.

Despite my editing, however, these field notes remain fragments, their nature reflecting the challenge that anyone faces who empirically observes ongoing research practice—the difficulty of understanding observed events as elements of a complex scientific undertaking, which unfolds on a trajectory reaching back to the past and extending into the future, which integrates past experimental results, setbacks, previously gained expertise and collective research traditions with visions of experimental results to be gained, visions of experimental success and future research. Given this difficulty, my field notes cannot attempt to provide an instructive, comprehensive description of what a research group is and does, and they are far from being consolidated enough to contribute to a philosophical account of scientific group collaboration. These notes are no more than the humble beginnings of empirical work.

What you read in the following are edited and shortened field notes from one particular group meeting at the beginning of 2011. As in all meetings in the planetary science group, this particular meeting was organized and chaired by Laurits, the group’s geologist and spokesperson. Apart from Laurits, three graduate students, the group’s technician and three senior scientists, among them two physicists and one chemist, were present at this meeting:

Shortly before nine Laurits opens the door to a small meeting room. He leaves his keys in the lock and takes a seat. Laurits always takes the seat right next to the door; he is in fact the only person that always sits in the same chair. He has brought with him a pile of documents, which he spreads out in front of him. [...]

Shortly after nine two senior physicists, Adam and Rasmus, the group’s technician and three doctoral students arrive. One of them, Lucas, is attending the meeting for the first time. He has just started his four-year dissertation project in microbiology. His supervisor, Victor, cannot attend the meeting, because he has conflicting teaching duties. Another of his PhD students, however, is present today and she now introduces the new PhD to the group. They all shake hands. Christoffer, the group’s chemist, arrives. Since there is no seat at the table left, he chooses an armchair in the corner of the room.

The first point on Laurits’s agenda deals with a “shaking device” that he wants to have installed within a bigger instrument. Nikolaj, the technician, has apparently contacted a number of companies to find out where they could buy such a device and how much they would have to spend on it. Shaking tables that move horizontally are commercially available. Nikolaj would have to modify these so that vertical moves are also possible. Laurits thinks that such a modification would be a good solution, whereas Adam disagrees. He questions the resilience of horizontally shaking devices with regard to vertical movements. Adam is in charge of the instrument and his opinion is crucial. Therefore, they do not settle the issue for the time being. Nikolaj is asked to develop a different idea for building a shaking device in cooperation with the companies from whom they might purchase the device. On this occasion, Laurits also asks Nikolaj about the price of a cooling plate that they have agreed to order. [...]

Laurits asks Christoffer about the results of an experiment that he has finished recently. They aren’t good, but Rasmus insists that some time ago they produced reasonable results with a very similar experiment: “It was little, but significant.” Christoffer agrees, Adam doesn’t. They try to remember the exact details of the experimental set-up they used in the earlier experiments. “Anyway,” says Adam, “we could put it on the list.” By suggesting to ‘put it on the list,’ Adam proposes to repeat the original experiment. They all agree that it would be worthwhile to perform this kind of experiment in a number of variations, again at a later date. And Rasmus mentions in this context that he just ordered some more experimental materials for another experiment that they planned to carry out soon as well.

During the remaining time they talk about a potpourri of minor issues that are mostly brought up by Laurits. An application has to be finished. Why not include a colleague from another department with whom they used to cooperate? Instruments have to be built; tests have to be run. How are the lab students doing? The Xrd-detector in the chemistry department has been seriously damaged during the rebuilding and will thus not be available for some time. They can, however, use an instrument in another department. Their homepage has to be revised and a PhD defense has to be organized. Maybe one of the censors could deliver a talk? “And,” Laurits checks with a quick look at today’s agenda what still needs to be discussed, “there is this project meeting in Norway. Someone should go there.” “Yeah,” Adam replies, “someone should go there. I’ve looked into the program.

I think Victor should go there. He is the biologist.” Laurits has printed out the workshop program and hands it around. Laura has a quick look at it: “Oh, yes, I know these people. It’s really biology.” After studying the printout Christoffer says: “But Adam, you are on the program.” “Yeah, but if Victor goes I wouldn’t go. And I think it would be better if he went.” “So,” Laurits resumes, “we should ask him about that. I will write him an email.” After a while he adds: “That’s it for today.”

When the meeting comes to an official close, people have a casual chat. The new PhD student, Lucas, is the center of the group’s attention. He is asked to explain his project. Laurits wants to know how he is financed and where he graduated. When the conversation is about to fizzle out, Lucas turns to Adam: “I guess you are the guy that is responsible for the big instruments.” “Yeah, if you have time we can go down and I’ll show you around.” “Oh yes, sure. I have time now.”

When Lucas and Adam descend to the basement where the group’s large simulation facility is installed, I join them. I know that in the meantime Laurits will return to his office and write up today’s minutes. At the bottom, he will list open to-dos, on which he will follow up at the beginning of next week’s meeting.

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