6 December 2011

AGU 2011: Days 0 & 1

Posted by Jessica Ball

AGU’s Fall Meeting is always a full-time job, and the beginning of the meeting is no exception. My week actually started Sunday night: I attended the first gathering of AGU’s student representatives, where we discussed our roles and how we will be developing them along with our sections’ Executive Committees. The Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology section (which I am the new student rep for) meets on Wednesday, and I hope to have a productive conversation with the EC about my new role.

Today I started off with a whole slew of posters and a couple of talks. Some of my favorites included:

  • V11C-2527: Regional mapping methods using ASTER to data to map minerals in the U.S. Basin and Range (J. C. Mars) – This directly relates to some research I’m doing with ASTER data in volcanic settings, looking for hydrothermal alteration minerals. The mapping capability of ASTER (and even more detailed hyperspectral imagery) is really exciting – provided you have a nice desert setting to take images in. I’ve been having a harder time with it because Central American volcanoes tend to be clouded in or wet a lot of the time.
  • V13C-2606: Geologic Map of the Valles Caldera, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico (F. Goff et al.) – I spent a good chunk of last summer in the Jemez, it was really exciting to see this new map. Fraser Goff is truly one of the volcanological experts on this area of New Mexico, and he’s been researching the Valles Caldera for years now. (You may recognize the name from his excellent book on the Caldera, Valles Caldera: A Geologic History).
  • H11B-1061: Methods for extracting climate indicator data from social media (M.Z. Fuka, D. R. Fuka) – This was a really neat little study about using Twitter keyword searches to derive information about (for example) temperature-sensitive animal species (or other things like weather and planting times), and apply it to monitoring the effects of climate change. This study looked at sightings of armadillos by US location, and found that the distribution of Tweets reporting armadillos or armadillo roadkill actually matched the expected range of armadillos pretty well. There’s potential for deriving lots of information this way, but a few problems – Twitter doesn’t archive all their data forever, and the search process can be cumbersome.
  • ED14A-01: Preparing Future Geoscience Professionals: Needs, Strategies, Programs, and Online Resources (H. MacDonald) – Heather MacDonald was the chair of my undergrad department while I was at W&M, but she’s also very well known for her research and work in geoscience education. Her talk emphasized that preparing students for careers in the geosciences is the responsibility of both the student and the professor: the professor to know what skills will be useful for the career that the student is interested in, and the student for being proactive about asking questions and pursuing opportunities. She also mentioned some of the many resources available for career development, including the Science Education Resource Center and On the Cutting Edge Workshops for grad students and postdocs.

This afternoon was also the inaugural Presidential Forum talk was given by popular history/science writer Simon Winchester, who as you may remember was the topic of much discussion in the geoblogosphere back in March after he published an article in Newsweek (and another in The Daily Beast) about the Honshu EQ. A number of bloggers and seismologists called him out for misrepresenting the science behind earthquake triggering, but after a flurry of online responses, there wasn’t much followup from Mr. Winchester. So it was interesting to see what he was going to say today!

His talk was nominally about his new Atlantic Ocean book, but when he prefaced his remarks with a comment about scientific discussion, we all knew exactly what he was referring to (and that he knew what was coming in the Q&A session). I wasn’t particularly interested in his new book – although his speech about it was engaging and had some entertaining anecdotes – but I did want to see what he had to say about the incident in March.

I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by both Mr. Winchester’s response and that of the audience. He took a moment before the Q&A to explain the situation – a call from Newsweek for an article about the EQ with a deadline 90 minutes away – and apologize for the article’s content. (No comment about the second article, which he presumably had more time to reflect on.) This still left several points unaddressed (why the second article, why wasn’t he more responsive to the online community, why not admit the mistake as soon as he was corrected), but it was a start. He then opened up the presentation for Q&A, saying that he was ready to “throw himself to the lions”.

There were questions about the book, but one of the questions from the “lions” in the audience also brought up a very good way of  thinking about the whole situation: Was he going to pay more attention to – and possibly collaborate more with – the scientists who noticed and corrected his mistakes? The answer was sort of vaguely yes – Winchester alluded to a possible future book on layered igneous intrusions and recognized that he needed outside expertise – but it acknowledged the fact that it is important for journalists and writers outside of science to do fact checking with scientists before making assumptions that could possibly provoke unnecessary fear of natural hazards. I certainly hope Mr. Winchester has learned that lesson – if only it were one that we could communicate to other popular science outlets! (The propensity of major networks to interview one “pet” scientist about everything, even if it’s not their expertise – I’m thinking Michio Kaku here – is a particularly egregious example of this.)

Tonight is also the Social Media Soiree and the Student Mixer (a new thing at AGU), although fortunately they don’t totally overlap, so I can actually make it to both. I’ll be heading out to those in a bit – and then really diving into the talks tomorrow!