AGU

I just spent two days in San Francisco at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. This is a conference of scientists from all the earth sciences, and from all over the world. Its 24,000 people overflow the Moscone Center in the SoMa district of downtown SF.

I heard some great science there, but today am just writing about the more personal dimensions of the experience. Nothing about extreme weather or climate change today, sorry, come back later for that!

I was at AGU just for the first two two days (it continues all week), and I was already exhausted by the time I left. AGU is thrilling, but overwhelming. There are two enormous buildings full of large-to-giant rooms in which talks and poster presentations of new research are going on ten hours a day for five days. There is so much going on that it’s impossible to take in even a small fraction of what you’d like to.

Some young scientists, new to the experience, study the schedule, figuring out what they want to see the most and putting together a plan to run from one session to the next. The oldsters like me have mostly given up on that, just taking it one day and one hour at a time.

I can’t sit in a big dark room listening to one 15-minute talk after another for that long without losing it. But the poster sessions make me even crazier than the oral ones. Subterranean indoor spaces the size of multiple football fields are filled with endless rows of posterboards, each row so long you can’t see from one end to the other. Each board has a poster, basically a 4’x6’ oversized index card full of graphs, charts and words. The scientist who made each poster stands in front of it hoping to attract customers to talk to about their results. It’s a small-city-sized open air market full of hawkers selling the latest scientific research for the price of the time it takes to stand there and take in their spiels. There’s just so much there that it’s hard to know where to start. I feel awkward either walking past the posters that have no takers, trying to see enough to decide whether I want to stay while not slowing down so much as to get the lonely author’s hopes up in case I decide no; or else trying to elbow into the little crowds gathered around the really popular posters.

If you’ve been in the field for a while, there will be many, many people you know at AGU. Some say the reason to go is not to go to the talks or posters, but just to talk to people. The volume of research published these days is so great that one can’t hope to read but a fraction of it, and talking to people is a quick way to find out about the most interesting new stuff. Research collaborators from points distant get a chance to sit and look at their plots together; groups of various sorts can meet in person without having to add another trip somewhere, since most people are at AGU anyway; big research institutions in the field (including mine) hold evening parties for their alumni; and old friends get to catch up.

But even talking to people can be hard. Sure, you know lots of people, but if you don’t plan, you may not run into the ones you want, to, and you definitely may not find time to actually talk to them – they are also running around from session to session and meeting to meeting, trying to make the most of their time. So like with the formal presentations, the informal interactions take planning at AGU.

Whether because I’m not much good at that kind of planning, or because of other factors in my psyche that I can’t control, I inevitably leave AGU feeling somewhat depressed. Sure, I heard some interesting new science and saw some old friends and colleagues, but I missed so much. I don’t even know what I missed, really, but surely some of it must have been great, right?

But ok, it’s still wonderful to be able to go. That AGU has grown so large is a sign of the intellectual health and excitement in the earth sciences. And while in many respects I probably get more out of smaller meetings – where one can just show up and pretty much be able to take everything in – there’s nothing like the electricity of a giant event where it seems as though everyone you know (plus tens of thousands of people you don’t) is there, and where everywhere you turn your head something potentially interesting is going on. It’s like a really, really big wedding, or some other kind of party with huge numbers of friends and relatives that you don’t want to miss even though you know you’re going to fail to catch up properly with most of them.

Plus, it’s in San Francisco.

AGU wears me out, and every year I say I need to take next year off from it. Sometimes I do, but most years I seem to be back.