Sunday, 15 April 2018

Week 80: (9th to 15th April 2017) or 'Spring in Vienna'

"Spring in Vienna. We could write an entire guide about how magnificent the season is but the chances are you already know. It's why you have chosen this particular time of year to visit, we would assume."

(Foreword to 'Vienna: In your Pocket', April 2018)

You can imagine the editors of In Your Pocket. You can imagine them ten storeys high into Austrian airspace, gently gnawing the end of an overworked red biro; their eyes slowly defecting from the screen, and becoming possessed by life in the streets below. You can imagine them gazing over the sunlit spires of baroque palaces, the ornate domes that crown antiquity, the year long blossom of opulence and the blue sash of the Danube that enwraps all of these architectural jewels. You can imagine their journalistic antennae for the 'here' and 'now' retracting, and their eyes becoming hypnotic with Vienna's ever-evolving narrative tapestry. Ancient crotchets and quavers float out the chimneys of grand music halls as some of Mozart's notes to the future are being read, and in a shadowed courtyard, four hoofs begin to clap their way out of parliament. A cart is chaperoned over the cobbles and, as if history has been liquidized in a food mixer, the city is soaked with the rich syrup of imperialism. That which was, and that which is in Vienna; to pluck one from the other would be to tear into the very fabric of this city. You can then imagine the editor looking back at his screen and realizing that to place Vienna in a pocket of a tourist would be like placing the Moon in the fruit bowl of an astrologist. As impossible as it is, the guide is written, it is published, and it now lies in the palms of my hands.

They assume incorrectly. I am visiting Vienna for quite different reasons. Before me awaits one of the largest geosciences conferences in the world: the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, affectionately referred to as the EGU. I begin to recall my memories of last year's EGU...

"...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 Centre, 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..." (From an article written last April, accessed here).  

I recollected such overwhelming enormity and wondered whether, inoculated with experience, it would feel less titanic.


I arrived just as the dusters were sweeping their way over my apartment so I made passage to a small, cosmopolitan park close by. There under the surprising strength of the Springtime sunlight, I breakfasted on a bagel and the subtle flavours of life on the continent. The carpet of the park was a sheet of gravelly crumbs, with all colours bleached except from small pools of green moss outcropping at the toes of a parade of trees. A calm hum of weekend traffic passed almost unnoticeably by; the whirring of engines being drowned out by a generously sized fountain display. Occasionally a dry continental breeze would flutter through the fountain, as if to cool off from its journey across the cloudless Austrian sky, and would shake it off like a wet dog over nearby park goers.

I found it difficult, from this uncelebrated Viennese park, to convince myself I was in Vienna. All those acts and dramas of universal life were reciting their scripts. Neon signs stamped the brows of takeaway bars, owners clasped ropes as their dogs took them for the Sunday stroll, cyclists and joggers whisked by and skateboards surfed over the pavement. I watched as children ran towards the fountain supposedly to check water was still wet. Commuters stepped under the golden arches to enter one of Ronald McDonald's kitchens. I could have been anywhere. Perhaps, it was less of all this and more of the fact that I had conveyed myself from a small hotel room in Luton to a parkland in Vienna in one, frictionless move. Time passed, and my apartment became ready.


Most writers, on their travels across the globe, fulfil what is at most an ironically unwritten ritual: a description of their hotel rooms. A room which hasn't been sufficiently cleaned is more than sufficient for the writer who relishes the first twenty minutes of his or her stay, piecing together the story of the previous occupant. The contents of a wastepaper basket, the lost and forgotten items down the back of a sofa, the fragrance left resting on pillows and the last watched channel on the television is often enough to sketch out a vivid personality. But hotel rooms are seldom left with these artefacts. Instead, they are stripped back to their bland, untarnished, homogenous shells and nowadays, in multinational complexes, there is very little one can say about the designer let alone the previous guest.

The singular, rented apartment, however, can never become immune to study. The interior design, the selection of soft furnishings, the passive sprinkling of subtle decorative statements, can reveal a great deal about the mind of its owner. After half an hour of close inspection, I had made several notes about - well, let's call him - Dennis. First, the apartment is unapologetically minimalist. Dennis may well be entranced by the history of Vienna, but the apartment stands proudly modern. Rather than veiling it with an inorganic array of emblematic antiquities - there are no paintings nor ornaments depicting old Vienna, for example - an honest Dennis, who has risked making a room quite bland, presents an apartment that is, at least, true to itself. Dennis is an economics student (that much he told me in the lift) and I imagine he is a commendable one. The room is not only clean and neat, but is organised into zones; everything has its place, its own cupboard, its own drawer; nothing is 'left out' and there is an air of self-sufficiency. Next comes an interesting set of exhibits. On a shelf sits a range of magazines - academic journals - but Dennis did not buy them. (They are editions published in the late nineties and Dennis would have been too young). So why are they there? And why these particular issues? In both, there are articles on funding Science: could Dennis be specialising in the economics of research? Or does Dennis have a distanced interest with Science; after all, he has a number of Science Fantasy fiction tales on the shelf below. Either way, I believe Dennis cares for a good view when he's working on whatever he studies and he passes this luxury on to his guests by staging the desk to overlook the city. Equally, above the bed, hangs an impressive landscape canvas of some Venetian gondolas. A memory of a trip to Italy perhaps, since he also has a recently published novel set in Turin among his apartment affects.


The ribbon is silk and royal blue; the kind of garland you may expect to see flamboyantly decorating a gift. The two ends are married together on a small identity badge. On its own, it is arguably defunct. But when loosely hung around the neck, it has an altogether transformative property. You become a geoscientist. 

Often it is nearly impossible to identify a person's occupation when granted a three or four minute audience with them on public transport. Only those students of the human may be able to detect subtle signals in their subjects' posture, clothing or demeanour. A decorator may, for instance, have the stains of a hundred paint jobs archived on his trousers. A barista boy may carry the perfume of a dozen mochas. But the geoscientist is clothed under a veil of deception. There are no distinguishing features to filter them out from a crowd so that the person standing next to you on a crowded platform may be a world leading expert on tectonic plates or a hotel concierge. This is, until, they withdraw from their bag this blue ribbon - an identity lanyard - and then it's all too clear they are, indeed, an attendee at one of the world's largest geoscience conferences, the European Geosciences Union General Assembly. 

I wrote at some length last year about the size and diversity which dresses this conference and I feel there is no need to repeat myself  on these remarks. My comments last year stand true this year, and most likely for many years to come, because the EGU is almost essentially based on tradition. There are many divisions - the Soil System Sciences division amongst them - and within each division, there are a number of sessions. Academics present their work either orally, or through a poster, or if they are astute at the latest technology, through an EGU-patented PICO 'Presenting Interactive Content' display. You may recall that I did a PICO last year, demonstrating my Soil Productive Lifespan concept. 

This year, however, I secured a 12 minute oral presentation within a session thematically based on the solutions to overcome soil compaction. I decided, at long last some may say, to officially and formally present the work I did whilst at the Royal Holloway, University of London. The project I conducted was a study of root tapering; that is to say, the variation of diameter down a root and how this tapering affected certain soil properties. At the time I wrote quite extensively about the project in a series of dissertation diaries, which can be found here. However, for a more up-to-date analysis of the results, you may find the audio of my talk together with my slides, below.

Those who attend the EGU do so to invest time in acknowledging and learning from the work of others but there is also an air of self introspection about it. It is not difficult to sit down, after sauntering through the hallways of science, and think about your own work; the way you are conducting it, the data you are collecting, the conclusions you are making. Thinking is not writing; thinking is not presenting. Thinking is not earning. But thinking must be done.

Think about it. 

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