Meet Cute(r) [Update]

In Hollywood, a “meet cute” is where the guy and girl (usually) in a romantic comedy meet in some improbable way rather than, say, being childhood friends or neighbors or coworkers. You know, falling off buildings into somebody’s cab, opening a door into somebody’s face, etc. Now in geoscience we have meetings, but they are anything but cute.  This week we get the monster of them all, the American Geophysical Union meeting with 24,000 (!) earth scientists converging on San Francisco to risk the entire field being obliterated in an earthquake, or, more likely, to crush local eateries at lunch with a battalion of laptops and program books. (Long ago, when the meeting was *much* smaller–only 2400, not 24,000–the poster session was held in the Cathedral Hill in a meeting room that burst into flame the following week.  Hiroo Kanamori dryly remarked that had the meeting been a week later, there would have been a lot of faculty openings in geophysics). Other giants are the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (8000 attendees), the Geological Society of America (8000 in Denver in 2013) and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (8000-9000). (Yeah, there are some others; you get the idea).  This is getting to be big business: with travel costs figured in, AGU probably generates over 20 million dollars in spending in one week. Nothing can make you feel smaller (in GG’s NSHO) than pinning up a poster in the cavernous poster hall in the Moscone Center at Fall AGU.  It puts the end scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark to shame. Over 2000 3400 posters can be up at one time (updated; GG missed the second poster display area this year).  If you allowed eight hours a day to look at posters, you could spend about 4 minutes at each poster (UPDATE: math was wrong, it was 4 posters/minute.  Now it is 7 posters/minute, or under 10 seconds/poster).  Of course then you would miss some of the talks in the roughly 45 concurrent oral sessions (if you had video of all the talks, you’d have about 1600 hours of science to watch.  That’s 200 days at 8 hours a day–try binge watching that!). And we’re leaving out the various business meetings, awards ceremonies and other hoopla. Where did all this come from?  Seriously.  This is not like a doctor’s convention where attendees are fine with just being spectators; nearly ever attendee is doing some research at some level and nearly all are presenting it (do the math: 23,000 presentations and 24,000 attendees.  Who are those 1000 slackers, anyways?). AGU is proud of this monster of an event, saying it is a place to connect and present your research.  OK, some cold water: if you want to reach a certain group of scientists, you probably have to present the same stuff several times simply because people are so scattered about that the odds of them making your talk or poster is small.  And guess what?  Many of the presentations at AGU (well, probably, most) are retreads from previous years, perhaps with a couple of new things added on.  Some are presenting material actually already published in the literature (to be fair, these are frequently invited talks). Will you run into the colleagues you want to meet?  Probably not unless you arranged a meeting ahead of time. Connecting and projecting, the old adage for getting ahead by going to a meeting, is pretty darn hard. How bad has it gotten?  To manage this cornucopia of research, AGU traditionally allowed each section (the seismologists, the hydrologists, etc.) a certain number of poster slots and rooms and that group then sort of ran their own (not-so) little meeting. But there were some glitches: one year there were three competing sessions on modern day deformation of the western U.S. being run by the geodesists, the seismologists, and the tectonophysicists and they overlapped to a large degree.  So now AGU runs “SWIRLs” which are an attempt to corral all the things with a common theme and list them in one place so you can be really depressed. And yes, within SWIRLs there are several overlapping oral sessions and poster sessions. Climate change isn’t even within a single SWIRL, for instance. More than 100 years ago, meetings were simpler.  Everybody sat in the same room and listened to the same talks; you would never give the same talk twice. The talks were often published as is. Because this is where stuff showed up, most of the scientists would be there who mattered.  If you spoke, you got feedback (and early on, that was published with the talk!). We still want to talk to the folks who care about what we do, and we’d still like useful feedback, but it is worth asking if the megameeting approach really works any more.  Sure, it is impressive as hell to see that earth science is this big, but is it really meeting the needs of scientists? Well, we shall see.  GG will be there for a couple of days before running screaming for rooms without Powerpoint presentations in them….

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