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scov-kirsh.jpgBack in 2003, I attended the AAS for the first time as a member of the media. In this new role, for the first time in my life, I was one of the cool kids. I wasn’t quite sure how the transition happened, but I wasn’t going to question. One of the results of getting to run with the fast crowd was being invited to the AAS after-hours party. Now, truth be told, as much as I’ve heard the admonishment, “Be careful who you tell about the party,” I don’t know of anyone who is turned away as not cool enough. All I really know is some people are more aggressively invited than others, and that year, I was one of the people who was taped on the shoulder, handed a little card with directions, and told, “You really need to be there…”

Hosted by Gina, Jake, Emilie and Sara (forgive me if I missed someone), the unofficial after-hours party seeks to change the face of astronomy one cocktail at a time (see their website here. It is typically held on the last night of the conference, directly after the Conference Banquet and the in-Famous Press Dinner. I’ve attended four of these now (one in association with an ASP conference instead of an AAS conference), and they are a great way to see our peers with their hair down and their groove on. Association presidents and senior scientist can be seen boogying side-by-side with undergrads. NASA administrators are getting it on with PIO officers, and sometimes people with jobs lubricate potential hirer-ees as music blares in the background. It is surreal. It is silly. It does build community. But sometimes things go too far.

The surreal: This year I saw Nick Scoville kicking up his heals in the middle of the dance floor (The image above shows him and Harvard Professor Bob Kirshner). He kept up with the non-grey haired set for at least 2 hours before taking a break. My hat’s off to Nick. Having received his BA in 1967, I’m guessing he’s in his 60s. I can only hope to be able to dance with such abandon when I reach his age.

The silly: The party drink was “Pluto’s Demise.” It was bright blue, fruity tasting, and potent. Outside it was way colder than makes sense for Seattle, and inside it was about 85 F. This combo meant many thirsty, overheating, overdressed astronomers over-indulging as they sought to cool off in temperature and temperament. One particular woman, from one particular observatory, made the mistake of wearing a (admittedly very pretty) cashmere sweater. One particular man, from one particular space agency, helped her (and himself) stay cool with a bit (or at least several glasses) of fruity Pluto goodness. The result? Very bad dancing from people who are normally prime examples of professionalism.

It does build community: I know I’ve made long term friends gabbing at these parties. The first time I really talked with fellow writer Martin Radcliffe was at the Seattle 2003 meeting, and we still talk at conferences (and dance badly at the after hours party). I really got to know Tim Slater at the ASP Tucson party, and now we turn to each other professional with teaching and technology questions. This year, I spent most of the evening hanging out with friends Sarah and Stephanie. At one point, we spied this tall, gangly, very well dressed undergrad holding up the walls looking lost. I’m guessing he was a senior in a brand new dark suit he bought to present at his first big conference. Sarah and I decided holding up the walls was just not what he needed to be doing, so we swooped in from both sides and brought him into our dancing circle (which included Kirshner and some other grey haired males). He danced with us for a few songs, and then wandered off with some other undergrads. He was still dancing when I abandoned the floor about an hour later. He no longer looked lost and he seemed to be having fun. Over and over this happened. Lost souls got sucked in by the extroverts and they become part of the talking, dancing, laughing hive of astronomers. As boundaries were lowered by time and alcohol, we were more willing to talk, to share, and to get to know one another (and to dance badly).

But, as I said, sometimes things go too far. Last year, when they cleared the club, an undergraduate was found passed out in a pile of coats. She had been handed free drinks all night by young men amazed to be out clubbing with beautiful astro chicks. She’d been passed one too many, and passed out. She was taken care of very admirable by one the program leaders for an REU who naturally mother hens the youth of our community. She ended up in the hospital and was fine after her stomach was pumped, but… And sometimes, the bad things that happen aren’t the result of too many free drinks meant as signs of kindness. Just like happens in middle school dances, the coolest of the cool would dance in packs, and when the wrong people sidled into their groups, they’d breakup and reform elsewhere to ditch the unwanted dancer. It’s not right, but it happens.

And, just like with the college club scene, there were the random drive by ass grabs. (For the record, I did not, have not, and will not grab anyone’s ass at one of these parties.) Some of them were of the friendly, “I’m your friend, I’m going to be silly and grab your ass variety.” Some of them were the lecherous, “I’m a person in power who drank too much and is not thinking, I’m dancing with a cute young thing, since I’m not thinking I’m going to grab their ass” variety. There was even one case of a “Hey, your ignoring me, I’m going to grab your ass to make you jump.” Having had my ass grabbed in all three of these contexts at one party or another, I have to wander if sometimes things go a bit too far. How does a person react when someone who controls millions in grants or vast telescope resources gets too close? Mostly, I personally shrug it off, and move on to contemplate that I can use very few names in my blog today. But…

But sometimes things go too far.

During an interview with Dr. Laura McCullough of the University of Wisconsin Stout (excerpts of which will appear in an upcoming Astronomy Cast episode), she said that she thinks part of the reason so many more women are in astronomy instead of physics is because our community is a little bit funkier, and little more open and accepting. I think she is right (and will blog more on that later). I just wonder if the ideal of building community one cocktail at a time periodically gets corrupted into confusing community one ass grab at a time.