What is AGU? It's the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, an annual gathering of more than 20,000 earth and space scientists from all around the world who converge for a week on the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
For me, it's one of the most fun weeks of the year. To try to explain what makes AGU so very awesome, I've compiled a list of Top 10 Reasons I Love AGU. It's my first attempt to convey the insanity, fun and above all, sheer science geekiness that is this exciting week.
10. 20,000 scientists all in one place
It's like the biggest dork convention on the planet. Yes, it's a lot of old, white males (come on, women and people of color! Science is calling you!), but everyone is 100 percent science dork and it shows. Fashion is not high on the agenda, although in the rare cases it does occur, it definitely stands out. Bulky poster tubes? Yes. Heavy backpacks and lots of MacBooks? Those, too.
9. Old friends
Even amongst the hordes, you bump into old classmates, former professors, past thesis advisers, who you now only see once a year at AGU. This is truly one of the best parts and I always look forward to seeing these friends again, even if it's just a few minutes to hear their new location, job prospect, baby or focus of research. It's kinda like Facebook, but in real life.
8. New friends
Old friends bring along new friends to meals and before you know it, you've realized you have similar research interests and love to ski. By next AGU, that two-hour acquaintance has become an old friend, too.
7. Learning new things
AGU exposes me to not only new ideas, but entire areas of research that I didn't even know existed. This year, it was THAI -- Toe to Heel Air Injection, a technique for extracting oil from places like tar sands that burns the dirtier hydrocarbons in place and releases the only lighter oil. A big chunk of carbon emissions stays underground as a result. Research is just beginning on how THAI could be used for the close-to-surface Canadian tar sands as well.
AGU is all about networking. Whether it's grad students looking for post-docs or looking for a good journal to get your next paper published in, the connections made at AGU are endless. For me, this process has shifted from looking for a job after grad school to, this year, discussing future areas of collaboration with other climate literacy organizations and ACE. Way less stressful.
5. Listening to science talks
Along with the poster sessions, the oral presentations are the real meat of AGU. There are dozens of talks (15 minutes each before you get the boot) going on simultaneously from 8 in the morning until 6 at night all through the week on every earth science subject possible: the Mars Rover, sea level rise, volcanoes, geochemistry, nonlinear geophysics, solar physics, hydrology... One of my favorite thrills is to stick my head into a session that I know nothing about and just see if I can follow what the presenter is talking about for a minute or two. Often it sounds like total Greek, but there are inevitably 30 to 200 people in the audience giving it their rapt attention.
4. Free coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon
3. It's science with a purpose
Not just science for its own sake. This comes across more strongly every year. This year it took several forms: Christine McEntee, AGU's executive director, spoke of AGU's vision to use the power of science "to ensure a sustainable future," specifically the need for scientists to do a better job communicating the gravity of their findings on climate change to the public. Richard Somerville, a prominent climate scientist, gave concrete suggestions for improving the language climate scientists use, including this cool table, created by Susan Joy Hassol (full article in Physics Today here). Naomi Oreskes, a science historian, spoke on her research on why scientists tend to err on the side of caution in their research conclusions and how poorly this is translated to the media.
2. Talking science
I love to talk science -- to make experts put their research into layman's terms - so what? Why does it matter? Poster presentations (hundreds of posters put up each morning in a huge hall) are the perfect venue to talk science one-on-one. There is a lot of cool research going on out there, especially in the realm of climate. After two and a half hours at my poster, sharing the results of ACE's student surveys and even more time hearing others present their own research, I felt validated, impassioned and also exhausted. ACE matters. Why? Because the science of climate change matters -- to all of us. Nowhere is this clearer than at AGU.
1. The energy
The energy, the buzz, the excitement at AGU is palpable. Science is happening in thousands of different conversations all around you and it's impossible not to get caught up in it. I only wish that more non-scientists, especially young people, could get a glimpse of this cacophony of science in action. Geeky as can be? Totally. Dry and boring? Never.