Thursday, January 17, 2008

The last cookie

A big part of academic life is spent in seminars, listening to speakers talking about their latest and greatest research. It is that place where one goes to expand horizons, learn about new science, keep up with breakthrough research, and stuff of that kind. (That’s the official version. It is also a great place to catch up on sleep).

Yet there is one overlooked but critical driving force that draws us to seminars, like the proverbial moths to a flame. The cookies and coffee. The quality and profile of a seminar, in scientific terminology, is directly correlated by the quality of food provided in it. An average department seminar with an invited speaker will have cookies and coffee. The difference sometimes is in the quality of the cookie. Large chocolate chunk cookies are satisfactory, but anything less than large M&M cookies would be absolutely unacceptable. Oreos or Chips Ahoy? Naaah! And a seminar with only coffee is as good as worthless. No coffee? Fuggetaboudit. If the seminar offers cheese and crackers and a fruit platter along with the cookies and coffee/coke, you can almost be assured of a superb talk. And one should always be weary of decoys, such as presentations by graduate students that are accompanied by pizza. More often than not, greed draws you to that seminar. But the quality of that seminar is suspect, with a few good ones making stray appearances between lots of mediocre ones. Pizza is almost always bait the department throws in for a seminar that otherwise may not be very well attended. Attend the talk at your own risk. Almost every department has an individual or two (likely profile: senior PhD student, male, highly sociable) who has a reputation of surviving on free seminar food alone. That person is rumored to spend breakfasts at a morning seminar, lunch at the early afternoon ethics lecture and dinner at the evening physics workshop.

When it comes to the real biggies (annual endowed seminar named after someone or the other with super-famous person speaking), you can expect the real deal. Brownies, fruit tarts, fruit platters and cheese and crackers, perhaps some tasty baked treats, or perhaps even some wine and a catered spread. Those seminars come with the cardinal unwritten commandment; thou shalt not miss the seminar that provides a grand banquet.

Here’s the thing though. I attend only a couple of seminars a week, and don’t really plan my day around them (I no longer fit the profile of the department legend surviving on seminar food). But when I do attend a seminar, I want my free food. As the popular misquote goes, "cookies are my birthright, and I shall have them" (original quote). Unfortunately, I make it to most seminars just as they begin, and not 5-10 minutes early. This means more often than not someone, someone, would have eaten the last cookie.

I can see you all gasp in utter shock and horror. Who would eat the last cookie? Isn’t it just like the last piece of cake? Isn’t it something you desire but do not eat because it is embarrassing to be seen taking that last piece away and denying the next person his/her share? Is there no code of honor left in this world?

Every time this happens (and this happens almost every week), I look around the room and see the satisfied faces of people clutching two or even three cookies in their hands.

They do not realize that it is not cookie dough but blood that they have on their hands. They have all, yes all, committed the crime of stealing the last cookie, and denying me my right. I’m sure there is a special place in science hell for all of them. May their experiments never work.


Anonymous said...

So true. Except, our cookies are out in the hallway and always, every time, the undergraduate class next door gets out just in time for them to grab cookies on their way home, denying graduate students their increase in blood surgar to survive the seminar.

FĂ«anor said...

You'll be pleased to know that we - in the financial industry - get entire sandwich platters for our seminars, meetings and suchlike events. Everybody - from the boss to the lowest lackey - piles on several handfuls onto their paper plates. Invariably the speaker's voice is drowned out by audible chomping. The last sandwich is eyed by at least three people, one of whom is vegetarian and therefore not even in the game (he has already polished off the veggie offerings). A lunge, gobble and a satisfied smirk. And it's time to start dozing lightly.

Sunil said...

anon....that is unpardonable! You need to raise this issue with the highest authorities, and ensure that the cookies are kept inside the lecture auditorium.

feanor....clearly, the financial industry is putting its financial resources to good use. Hopefully the sandwiches are good, and not just a slice of meat/tomato between two slices of bread :-)

How boring are financial seminars?

Anonymous said...

"May their experiments never work."

Man, thats harsh.

/sits back and reflects on how many times she has been guilty of the crime....

:) enjoyed this post muchly!

Sunil said...

TGFI......there is no mercy for the last cookie thieves, unless that thief's name is sunil :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil,

Sorry to invade this place with slight academic talk-- what are you researching? I have a feeling that you do molecular biology. But what in particular?
I am a systems neuroscientist in training, working to understand how the nervous system encodes sensory information and looking to expand my set of skills.


Sunil said...

Aniket....doesn't everyone do molecular biology? :-)

Yes, "molecular biology" is part of my everyday life. I'm a pharmacologist/biochemist, with a broader interest in the molecular details of metabolic cycles and circadian or other rhythms.

Anonymous said...

Well, some systems neuroscience people don't yet. They do more engineering and mathematics. But it is changing these days, with the introduction of molecular biological tools to alter neural circuits and study the effects on neural information processing.

Sunil said...

Aniket.....sounds fascinating. Where exactly are you, and what do you do?

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