The biggest Earth science meeting of the year comes up every December. This year, why settle for reading about it in boiled-down snippets, or catching distorted reports in five-second radio sound bites? I'll show how to forecast significant stories from the AGU Fall Meeting at your own keyboard—and show you my own forecast.
What the Meeting Is About
AGU, the American Geophysical Union, is the largest scientific society devoted to earth science and one of the most respected. It publishes over a dozen major journals and scores of scholarly books, hosts meetings and symposia of all sizes and is a premier place for scientists around the world, not just in America, to get together and trade ideas and data. For many years, it has held its Fall Meeting in San Francisco for a week in early December. Some 8,000 scientists show up for 6,000 talks and poster presentations. And you can peek at what they'll be doing.
You can also read my five-day diary from the 2000 Fall Meeting to get more of the flavor of the event.
What People Do There
The participants and the press know what to expect beforehand. The full program and thousands of abstracts are posted in advance online. They can't see everything at the meeting, not even a tenth of it, so their task is to pick out the most interesting stuff and plot out a personal schedule for the week.
Scientists and reporters are there for different purposes.
Scientists have hard-working fun—they give their talks, check out new work in their own specialties, maybe see a few sessions from related fields, stroll through some of the posters, and schmooze the rest of the week. None of this is wasted time, especially the schmoozing—that's when personal ties are formed and renewed, when professors and former students, or mentors and apprentices catch up with each other, when banquets are held and medals are awarded, and certainly when some brief romances flower. Everyone drinks coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon, compliments of the AGU. It's a great week to be a scientist.
The press has it harder, I think, but it's still a great time for a reporter. The folks on the science beat know the big stories already because the public information officers have done the spadework and scheduled press conferences. The reporters have phoned their sources beforehand and read some background, maybe written parts of their stories. But no amount of advance work substitutes for that scientific session—maybe one morning or afternoon, maybe several blocks of talks over several days—where all the experts are in one room and an audience of hundreds is listening and questioning the speakers. The reporter has to grasp the occasion, talk to the right people, boil it down to a few paragraphs of crisp copy, and transmit it on deadline for you to muse upon over breakfast in the paper or at your favorite geo-news site.
How You Can Play Along
Do you want to play reporter? Each fall the abstracts of the meeting's talks are online, and so is the complete program. Here's what to do during the weeks beforehand. Let's use the 1997 meeting as an example—believe it or not, all of it is still online.
Launch your browser and go to the AGU Fall Meeting Web site where the 1997 meeting is permanently archived. You can search the abstracts database to zero in on topics of interest.
Study the session descriptions, maybe copy and paste the likely ones into a clipboard for convenience. I think session U11, "New Insights Into Mantle Structure and Dynamics," has potential. That will be our example. You can enter "u11" into the search box and see all the abstracts at once.
Some of my favorite mantle workers are speaking at this session: Raymond Jeanloz, Thomas Ahrens, Michael Wysession for example, all pondering once again the strangest part of the deep Earth, the core-mantle boundary or CMB. It's been a constant thrill watching them work and interact over the years.
Not all the abstracts are there, so I can't see what Thorne Lay will say by way of introduction. That's usually a good thing to check first. But here's the pay-dirt talk of the session, it seems to me: Justin Revenaugh's team will be showing how their precision seismic work documents very soft places, probably zones of melting, on the CMB. These could be the birthplaces of mantle plumes. Other talks discuss the physical details of materials in this hellish region.
Unless you're up to date with the specialty, you won't find these abstracts easy to follow. Usually the talks themselves are more interesting, and very often things change in the weeks after the abstracts are submitted. But they are still invaluable, concentrated clues to the latest developments.
The abstracts are not the whole thing. I'd go deeper into this story by visiting the home pages of the speakers, by searching for recent articles or press releases about their work, by contacting them, and so on. Here are some more hints. The great thing is that now anyone in the public can do this kind of delving on their own.