Sunday, 30 April 2017

Week 30: (24th April to 30th April 2017) or "European Geosciences Union"

The first sprint was complete. The feet of seven elongated monsters that had charged so vehemently north across the land curtailed to a halt alongside a south London platform. They yawned together in collective fatigue; their gaping mouths exposing a large cavity upon which a dozen humans jumped out, and another dozen climbed aboard. In synchrony, the yawns concluded and the lips of these seven monsters pursed together once more. Off they went, accelerating steadily and then darting furiously through the air...

I was in the belly of the fourth sprinting beast. Riding with me was a mother and her 2 year old daughter. Is there anything more curious than a baby's face? A grown man or woman can at times furbish a mask of intrigue, even when behind the guise they are in a state of boredom and secretly pondering about something entirely different. But a baby, enveloped within their cherubical web, has not yet mastered the art of masquerade. Their searching eyes and the inquiring configuration of their lips is an outward expression of a genuinely inquisitive mind. I pretended to gaze out of the window, but really watched the reflection of a mother unzipping the wonders of life on Earth.

"Look, a luggage rack," she exclaimed, channelling her offspring's eyes towards a series of metal bars. How such a mundanity so suddenly transformed into an adventure playground! The baby crawled over the bars, watching as the mother became the pilot of her doll; she gazed in amazement at how the doll glided with a swish and a whoosh in and out of the rack. If only we could fly?

"Look, a plane," the mother pointed out the window to a jet, flying low over London. Other facets of interest arose: a wall of graffiti, a pigeon, a skyscraper. The baby did not - could not - comment on these articles. But in her own quiet, pensive way, she was absorbing everything. Her mind, hoovering up the sights, smells and sounds of life, was fuelled not by salary nor by reward, but by authentic curiosity. It is that yearning spirit for truth, that thirst for knowledge, and the incessantly ravenous desire to question everything that turns babies into scientists. I looked down at the bottom of her pram. Outcropping from a pile of blankets and spare nappies was a book. It was simply called Baby Einstein. Turning back to the mother and her creation, I saw not a baby but a future scientist.


Curiosity is a curious thing. It brings 14,000 people together every year at an event known as the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, commonly known as the EGU. For five days, scientists from around the world exhibit research, pose questions, instigate debates and exchange knowledge at an overwhelming magnitude. Each and every single one of them is an expert in a closely defined niche; each has etched the fragments of his or her wisdom into the chapters of Science and each defends their contributions with obstinate persistence. And to think, each and every single one of them started life as a baby; crawling sponges absorbing the wonders of the world. In essence, little has changed. Though they may walk with a professorial stride, and are often inclined to passionately debate their ideas, that essential brooding for answers remains just as strong as it did when they were still weaning.

The EGU was established in September 2002; a non-profit international union of scientists who are engaged, to varying degrees, in geoscientific research. The membership stretches from students to their retired, emeritus idols. I am in the belief that these emeritus professors are similarly envious of the sprightly young, up-and-coming 'early career researchers' who display the vivacity that they, themselves, experienced 'all those years ago'. Every year, the EGU holds a General Assembly in Vienna where the discourses of volcanology, atmosphere, climate, energy and the Earth's resources congregate.

I have just returned from attending this year's assembly. I was one of 14,496 scientists from 107 countries in attendance. Being an Early Career Researcher, I was in a majority; over 53% were under the age of 35 years. That said, it is an overwhelming experience. If one is ever equipped with the desire to experience what a TARDIS is really like - bigger on the inside than the outside - come to the Austria Center, Vienna in late April. You do not step foot into a building. You step foot into a world; a world where mysteries float on the backs of question marks, where the knowledge from distant places is unzipped and unpackaged, where the data from probes deep underground or far out into Space are decoded and disseminated.


A scientist attending the EGU can often be found outside the EGU. He or she will make no attempt to hide their royal blue lanyard. If one of them appears to be striding down the backstreets of Vienna, or along the banks of the Danube, it is rarely the case that they are lost, but taking a moment's respite away from the slightly overpowering intensity of the conference. For beyond the Austria Center exists a reassuring reality; a mundanity where the cells of intelligence can recharge and the appetite for Science can be re-established. I had several experiences of this...

An opera house. In the grandiose wings, ahead of a performance, I stood watching the lordly procession of some of Vienna's most gracefully refined populace. They approached the bar with their programmes, scanned through the glass at various mezes, and parted with aperitifs. Petite specimens of salmon outstretched on beds of cheese seemed to be particularly favourable. Every now and again, the grand doors would open and in would come an expensive broach, or a curiously patterned bow tie. Seats began to become occupied. A conductor emerged. The first bars of an Overture began....a curtain was lifted... an operatic diva sang out... sweet and fragile like a goddess...like a bird...

Like the birds in those trees, and now... I am in the park! In an oasis of tranquillity beside the Austria Center, the hubbub of the EGU is sedated by a natural serenity. Often, in between the sessions, I would walk into this garden, taking a pew at one of the benches and allowing my thoughts to return to more placid, unperturbed things. Occasionally, a fellow scientist would be seen harbouring their thoughts under the shadowy canopy of the trees or meditating upon the deepest of questions as they wandered up the petal-laced paths. The fluff of a spent blossom would often descend like miniature woollen clouds upon us.


A park, such as the one that sits upon the fringes of the Austrian Center, is not too dissimilar to the EGU itself. Look at the foliage and then look at the people! There are giant, established trees anchored, no doubt, with roots that stretch for many hundreds of metres underground and there are the established, seminal scientists whose contributions are similarly rooted deep into the heart of their respective disciplines. There are the young saplings, germinating and sprouting, aiming as high (if not, higher) than their fat-trunked counterparts, and there are the Early Career Researchers who, at this stage, can only dream of reaching their idol's canopy of scientific reputation and impact. The biodiversity is great; try and count the many species of flowering plant that bless the eyes of amblers, and then try and count the organizations represented at the EGU. Try and fathom the plexus of language, of dialect, of culture on display at this conference! Birds tweeting in the trees, scientists tweeting on their phones... the similarities appear endless.




I attended so many sessions and absorbed so much Science. What were my highlights? Among the medal winners was the Emeritus Professor Johan Bouma. I had read much of Bouma's work previously and enjoyed an audience with him on Thursday morning. Between us was only experience (him being superior in this respect) as we share the same passion for Soil Science and agree that the future of the discipline requires pedologists to sustain field research, even when the comfortable armchair and the lure of satellite datasets is appealing. I listened to Johan presenting his Alexander Van Humboldt Medal lecture. Here he summarises a key message.



Johan was also one of the convenors for a PICO session that I participated in. The PICO is a format especially designed by (and for) the EGU General Assembly.

"PICO is short, precise, and scientific. PICO combines the advantages of both oral and poster presentations in an innovative type of presentation which provides the opportunity to interact with the audience. Every PICO author first presents his/her work orally. Afterwards, all session attendees have enough time to watch the presentation again, to hold discussions with the author and with their colleagues, and to network."

The aim for my PICO was to introduce my Soil Productive Lifespan concept, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it was received. You may watch it below:




Friday marks the final day of the EGU. Poster boards are stripped; microphones stands are retracted; the crumbs of a trodden twiglet are vacuumed up. Scientists leave the centre as easily as they arrived. How more difficult it would be, I thought, if networking was not virtual; if scientists connected with one another throughout the week with lengths of string. Few would escape entanglement because nearly everyone establishes new contacts and new networks. In the age of social networking, turbo-fuelled by the great rush of technological innovation, the architecture of these networks exists for a second in a handshake, and then persists only in cyberspace. Like the great web of interlocking roots underground in the parkland garden, the links between scientists now revert back to the day-to-day email. But what a chance the EGU provided to add to one's address book!

***

As I write, a baby is being born. Another is taking their first steps. Another is gazing out of a car window. Curiosity is being cultivated. Questions are being asked. As I write on this parkland bench, 1000 meters but seemingly a world away from the EGU Conference Centre, I think back to the baby on the train; the Baby Einstein. Maybe, one day, she'll end up here, presenting a PICO at her first EGU. Maybe she'll sit here, on this bench, and reflect, as I did, how wonderful a life spent wondering, thinking and questioning really is.



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