The Science of Sustainability

AGU: Twenty Thousand Geeks by the Sea

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Moscone Center West holds just part of the enormous annual AGU fall meeting. This building, by the way, is built to keep functioning after a major earthquake.Photos by Andrew Alden

This week San Francisco pays host to the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Most of us just call the occasion "AGU." I always go. Here's what it's like.

The AGU meeting is the world's largest gathering of Earth scientists, and it's been held in San Francisco in early December every year since the 1960s. By now it's been around longer than Herb Caen. Over the years it has grown into a Woodstock-size event and moved from the old Civic Center to the Moscone Center. What do 20,000 scientists do here for a week?

They give scientific talks, of course, the traditional short lecture with slides about what they're up to, given to a roomful of their closest colleagues. Prominent scientists give longer lectures to very large rooms, and often it's standing room only. Sessions may deal with dry topics, but sometimes there are intangible extras, like the session I saw Wednesday in which each of the speakers paused to remember their colleague, the late Jean Francheteau, with photos and reminiscences.

But more and more, the meeting's science is presented on posters: a 4-by-6-foot panel on which a scientist hangs a large printed poster, standing there for a scheduled time period to discuss the work with anyone who stops by.

Poster presentations are not all about big topics, but they do feature new science.

Posters fill Moscone Center South, several acres of them. The nice thing about posters is that the interaction is of high quality, unlike a lecture where time is limited and you can't have a proper dialog. They can be quite popular, especially in mid-afternoon when the beer is served.

Scenes like this fill the whole cavernous space of Moscone Center South.

The atmosphere is high-energy, even at 8 a.m. when proceedings open. The whole world is represented, as well as all ages. You can see the gleam in a student's eye who is meeting a grand old scientific titan for the first time—and the corresponding pleasure of passing wisdom on to the next generation.

There are lots of meetings that go on: task forces, society committees, interest groups. I've seen participants who do nothing but these, and they seem to be happy to do it. "Town meeting" sessions take advantage of the occasion to gather widespread researchers in one room. One example I attended was for the great EarthScope program, a ten-year project that is covering the entire United States with a moving network of seismographs like a doctor moving a stethoscope. (They started in California.) Over a hundred people were on hand for that.

Social events abound as well. Medals were awarded Wednesday night; receptions are held for all sorts of groups; geoscience bloggers get their own lunch today. There's something for everyone, even a 5K run and a sort of science slam I saw Wednesday evening where people gave 5-minute talks using no more than 20 slides.

A gathering of this size is a magnet for the universe of suppliers to the trade, who have a whole floor of Moscone Center West to spread their wares. High-tech instrument dealers, scholarly and textbook publishers, government and industry agencies, and fancy rock and gem dealers create a veritable casbah, and there's plenty of talk in the long beer lines.

An official from NASA demonstrates some of the agency's capabilities in the Exhibit Hall.

More than a hundred reporters and writers occupy the pressroom, many shuttling across the hall to a room outfitted for press conferences. This year there have been a lot of them centered around earthquakes, climate change and interplanetary space. Is all that really in the realm of geology? It is in my book. When you watch or read the news, look for science items "presented in San Francisco." It's all part of the geosciences' holiday season.

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Category: Geology

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Andrew Alden

About the Author ()

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for About.com since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as "Best of the East Bay" from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.