by Sara McBride
Imagine a conference where the attendees alone represent a city roughly the size of Timaru or Whanganui.
Now imagine all those people are passionate about earth (and space) sciences wandering the streets of San Franscico, taking over the city one week a year. This conference is so large it has its own brand of beer. The registration room has a jazz trio plays to welcome people to the venue. There is also an AGU app, so you don’t miss important sessions. And this conference managed to score not one, but TWO early screenings of the new Star Wars film. NASA is in the house, so is Elon Musk, the CEO of Telsa and SpaceEX. Musk brought a Tesla luxury car for the grad students to pile into and populate Instagram and Facebook with obligatory selfies.
This isn’t just any conference. It is AGU: The American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. But don’t let the “American” title fool you. While in line to register, I hear French, German, Korean, Japanese and Mandarin mixed together. AGU is an international experience, with scientists from more than 50 countries.
Now, I’m an oddball at AGU. I don’t study rocks, space or water. I study people, specifically, how to communicate more effectively about natural hazards to encourage people to become better prepared. I’m a social scientist. So being here for me feels like I’m wearing corduroy in a room filled with Karen Walker. But AGU feels so large that no one feels either part of an “in-crowd” or an outsider. Everyone is connected by the connective tissue of their love of science. I’d braced myself for being a strange sideshow but was instead welcomed into the family of science.
However, attending AGU has its own risks. First, is the repetitive activity based injuries including walking for hours and standing at poster sessions, talking with people. Blisters and sore feet are on certainty of the conference. But the other is the talking. On Friday, about 80% of the people I speak with have lost their voice from talking so much. Sleep becomes optional and short, due to endless breakfast meetings to late dinners with a diverse cadre of scientists. By Friday morning, the talks, posters and exchanges begin to blend together, create a haze of memory in my mind. People begin to stop finishing sentences or losing their thoughts. By Friday, I too am tapped out.
The hallways of the Moscone centre are abuzz with people talking about science, making connections and networking. I’ve never seen so many people excitedly engaged in discussions about statistical modelling for basal sliding or the effect of brine ph on sandstone. It’s a paradise of new knowledge. But also combined with an ancient and very human experience: the art of conversation and connection, which is probably the most important finding of them all.