Geophysical Connections

john's picture

The annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco has been a part of my life for over 35 years.  Held annually in December, the AGU meeting has grown from a small group of several hundred scientists to a gathering of over 14,000 in that span of time. 

Geophysicists, geologists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, teachers, and professionals of every persuasion fill the Moscone Center in San Francisco.   Lectures and presentations begin at 8:00 in the morning for the entire week, ending finally at 5:00 pm or later.  Posters dense with equations, images and  text fill the exhibition halls by the thousands.  Evening sessions, “town hall” meetings, and special lectures extend the meeting hours until exhaustion sets in.

It is almost impossible to find colleagues and friends in that mass of humanity.   Cell phones are a necessity if lunch engagements are to be kept.  It is as though an entire population of alien beings were suddenly dropped into a few city blocks of San Francisco, speaking a strange language of mathematics, computing, and chemistry. 

The residents of that part of San Francisco seem bemused by the crowds and confusion.  They know that the following week, a new and different group of conferees will appear and repeat the experience.

This year I have been invited by colleagues to lecture in two sessions.  The first is Monday, when I will describe the work of my research group on earthquake forecasting and risk analysis.  The second of the two talks is on Thursday, when I describe our work on synchronization in complex systems. 

In fact the AGU meeting is a vast experiment in social dynamics and personal networking.  In economics, social networks are often invoked to explain why economies boom and bust, and why some ideas become wildly popular while others vanish into oblivion. 

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Max Planck once famously remarked that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."   The fundamental truth of Planck’s observation can be seen even today, as the more rigid attitudes of the old guard contrast with the fresh enthusiasm of the brash young students.

For me, the AGU meeting marks the passing of another year.   Older colleagues, teachers, and friends who were once fixtures in the lecture halls no longer appear.  Some have retired.  Others have died.  

As once we were the young Turks, growing into the new ideas of plate tectonics and continental drift, so now we gradually disappear, leaving the science to younger and fresher minds.  Perhaps they will solve the problems that we could not.


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