Origin and future of the Annual Conference on the Physics, Chemistry, and Biology of Water

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The Annual Conference on the Physics, Chemistry, and Biology of Water has become a focal point for all of those interested in the science of water — almost an extended family. How did it originate? What’s the future?

The conference began as a failed inspiration. Beginning to see new interest in the field of water, my colleague Chaim Frenkel and I decided to organize a conference, on biological water. That was almost two decades ago. It was housed in Rhode Island, under the auspices of the Gordon Conference, an organization well known for sponsoring conferences mainly during summers at vacant school campuses. Our conference proposal was accepted. With their financial assistance, we were able to accommodate several dozen scientists.

For Chaim and myself, the conference was a resounding success. In a lively forum, we heard from leaders in the field, not only from mainstream scientists but also from the more “controversial” wings of the water-research edifice, including Gilbert Ling and Jacques Benveniste. That latter presenters — we didn’t know it at the time — led to the demise of any future Gordon Conferences on biological water. For us, the prospect of holding such a conference in the absence of those pioneers was impossible, notwithstanding the controversial nature of their contributions. All voices had to be heard.

But some conferees didn’t see it that way. When critiques were requested from conferees at the end of the conference, we learned that reactions were mixed. Most participants loved the conference. But some did not. They critiqued the meeting on two grounds: First, Gordon Conferences were supposed to focus on the latest findings in the field; yet, Gilbert Ling had conducted no experimental work for many years. And, as for Jacques Benveniste, several commented that the theme of “water memory” bordered on the ludicrous. It was a scientific joke, not a scientific phenomenon.

Ordinarily, such minority critiques would matter little, but here the situation differed. The Gordon Conference people had sent a monitor to sit in the audience and report back to the parent organization on whether or not the conference was worthy of continuing, as is commonly the routine with Gordon conferences. He recommended not. Though Chaim and I felt that any such conference could not be conducted without those pioneers, no matter how controversial their viewpoints, we learned the hard way that not everyone felt that way. We were obliged to toe the line. We needed to focus on the “latest” rather than the potentially most profound. We lost.

Feeling demoralized and in need of some relaxation, I rather enjoyed my post-conference drive through the autumn colors of New England, stopping to see my friends at Vermont Photonics. Tom Lowell and Mike Mross, the owners of that company, had become friends, and welcomed my download of conference details. They listened intently. Then, to my utter surprise and pleasure, they offered to host successive conferences in Vermont. I could not believe my good fortune.

Nor could I imagine two such generous souls, so full of enthusiasm and deep interest in science. For seven years, we held the conference in Vermont, eventually landing at a ski resort called Mount Snow, where off-season accommodations were affordable. No skiing, but plenty of science. The conferences were small at first, but they kept growing despite the absence of any serious marketing. Camaraderie built among participants. We all knew that the subsequent conference would be at least as interesting than the one prior.

When Tom became seriously ill (he passed several years ago), and economic constraints began weighing heavily on the organizers, it was clear that we needed to change venues. By that time, the conference had gained enough recognition that several offers came for hosting new venues. I decided to accept the one from Evgeny Germanov, a Russian who had migrated to Bulgaria for business reasons. Germanov’s business, dealing with pharmaceutical information stored in water, was definitely off the beaten path, so he welcomed the oft-unorthodox kinds of presentations that the conference was beginning to attract. He also understood that the conference might bring fresh attention to his commercial ventures. So holding the conference in Bulgaria worked well for both of us.

On the other hand, Bulgaria does not exactly lie in the mainstream of travel routes — few would choose Sofia as their vacation destination. Some conferees groaned at the travel complications, and also at some of the Soviet-era accommodations. Nevertheless, the conference continued to grow. The “community” kept increasing, and began feeling much like an extended family. It was not only the scientific presentations that drew crowds, but also the sense of openness — the ability to meet fellow co-conspirators in an enclave of “revolutionaries,” most of whom understood that there was more to science than what the mainstream was professing.

The scientific presentations focused mainly on fundamentals. Many of the presentations were cross-disciplinary, involving multiple fields of science. And, although principally fundamental in content, the presentations almost always implied practical applications that could theoretically help solve some of the many problems facing our world today, ranging from health, to water purification, all the way to water-based energy production. Those practical applications led eventually to exhibits, in which technologies could be displayed with hands-on opportunities.

After six years, Bulgaria, too, came to an end, largely due to finances. While that circumstance was unfortunate, good fortune showed up once again in meeting Tom Meyer, an experienced American businessman of German origin, who thought that Germany could provide a more opportune venue, and who was willing to sponsor the conference. The match has been perfect. Tom has taken over financial responsibility, leaving all scientific arrangements up to me. Working with Tom has been a pleasure — we see eye to eye on both scientific and practical details. In fact, last year’s conference near Frankfurt, the fourteenth, was a resounding success (according to participant feedback), with approximately 200 people in attendance. We’re definitely on a roll.

We plan to continue these annual conferences in Germany, at least for the time being. Its central location works well for most conferees; and, the country enjoys a large concentration of people from many disciplines with interest in water science, especially with aspects of water science dealing with health. In that scientific area, interest keeps growing rapidly. Many health-care providers have come to recognize what Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the father of modern biochemistry, had long opined: “Life is water dancing to the tunes of solids.” Water is central. And, equally profoundly, “Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium; there is no life without water.”

(I’ve come to relish Szent-Gyorgyi’s many quotable quotes. My favorite one: “Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.”)

For myself, organizing the Annual Conference on the Physics, Chemistry, and Biology of Water has put me in the center of what feels increasingly like an extended family. So many “regulars” have become dear friends. The conference has become not only a place to hear exciting new science, but also to commune with friends and build collaborations. It’s become like a family gathering — not an “exclusive” family, but a warm and welcoming family that invites others to join. Many conferees remark about this feature. We try hard to maintain that family-like atmosphere, with ample opportunity for everyone to dine together, chat together, and even play together. The main event is on science, but the side show is the remarkable atmosphere.

Nevertheless, I must admit to a dilemma that I face each year: an embarrassment of riches. We now have many scientists whose contributions are often penetrating enough that I’m eager to invite them to present again and again, year after year. At the same time, new presenters keep the conference lively. Given the limited amount of conference time — few people have the patience for more than a four-day conference — I need to make choices between those two options, and I must tell you that it’s not easy. If one is looking for problems, I suppose that this problem is a “good” one to have, but I face that dilemma each year, with no obvious solution that makes sense.

We also face the issue of maintaining that special atmosphere. It works well with a group up to perhaps 200 or 250 people, but the increasing popularity of the conference means that growth is inevitable. Once the conference exceeds some critical threshold, it may begin to lose its intimacy, which conferees now relish.

That intimacy was warmly expressed during last year’s conference. The conference banquet ended with a circle of conferees, all holding hands. It was meant, it seemed, as a measure of appreciation for the organizational efforts that I had put in over the years, and perhaps more deeply for the family losses I had recently suffered. I was overcome with emotion. The music played, the songs sung, the hands held tightly, and all were overcome with that feeling togetherness that I have rarely seen at any scientific conference. Almost nobody could be seen lacking tears in their eyes.

I sense much of the same kind of atmosphere emerging in the new platform, called the “World Water Community”, which my colleague and friend, Everine van de Kraats, is now organizing. The field of water science and technology has grown extremely large and diverse over the years. It’s not just the need for communication that we face, but also the need to solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems. Thus, the need for effective communication among the larger community has grown urgent.

Hence it is with delight that I received the news of Everine’s new endeavor. I’m convinced that this endeavor will provide the ideal venue for the larger water community to connect, and ultimately to come together collaboratively to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Inevitably, it will constitute “Water Central.”

I cordially invite you to our annual water conference, and also to join in this exciting new “World Water Community.” Being connected in that way will serve us well.

With all good wishes,

Gerald Pollack

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