World Scientists Gather in San Francisco, and You Can Join Them

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Ocean currents in the Mediterranean Sea are visualized from satellite data. Such images, used in the "Beautiful Earth" performance by the Bella Gaia Ensemble, can communicate in ways not possible in a dry scientific paper. (NASA/Bella Gaia)

All of next week, San Francisco's Moscone Center will host a gigantic meeting for more than 20,000 scientists who study geophysics. It's the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a gathering of substantial brain power and insight into our home planet.

Media people from all over the world, including KQED Science, will be on hand to pick out the nuggets. And science lovers can participate in a range of public events encompassing art, hacking and climate change.

Two free public events are up this Sunday, with a lecture on energy and environment that won't get you down, and a family event for all ages.

First is a free lecture from noon to 1 p.m. by Richard Alley, the bearded, gung-ho host of the PBS Series "Earth: The Operator's Manual." His talk is titled "Ice Cores to Smart Phones: The Good News on Energy, the Environment, and Our Future," and he will affirm that "the science, engineering, and design that gave us smart phones can also give us an economical, sustainable energy system that can power everyone almost forever."

Bella Gaia
Kristin Hoffmann performs in front of a geophysical display as part of "Beautiful Earth" by the Bella Gaia Ensemble. (Bella Gaia)

Then from 1 to 5 p.m. is the Exploration Station, a free, four-hour program to welcome young thinkers into the world of science. Working scientists will be on hand to explain the science of the atmosphere, the Earth, the electromagnetic spectrum, the poles and space. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can work on merit badges, and younger kids have their own special activities, like pop rockets.


On Tuesday the 15th, there's the Thriving Earth Exchange, a loosely organized effort to bring scientists and community leaders together in hacker-type projects aimed at "challenges related to natural resources, climate change, or natural hazards." A free networking event from 5 to 7 p.m. will feature 5-minute "lightning talks" about partnerships that are succeeding right now. You can join ongoing projects, find collaborators and get inspiration from community science leaders. Maybe your city can take part in the next wave of projects, starting here.

Finally, on Thursday night, December 17, it's a performance at Herbst Theater of "Beautiful Earth" by the Bella Gaia Ensemble, fresh from the climate talks in Paris. This performance combines NASA imagery, dance and world music to induce the "overview effect" experienced by astronauts as they gaze upon Earth from above. A panel discussion including AGU scientists will follow.

What Is Geophysics All About?

Where the precision and insight of laboratory physics meets the real-world complexity of the Earth, sea and air, that's geophysics. It's exploring things that are invisible -- the interior of planets (including our own), the activity of the ocean, the behavior of winds and weather, the energetic phenomena of outer space.

Earth, 8 Dec 2015
DSCOVR image of Earth from December 8. (NASA)

The AGU is the world's largest scientific body devoted to this field. The annual AGU Fall Meeting has been held in San Francisco since 1968, a year before Woodstock, when hippies still ruled the Haight.

Back then the big excitement was about the new theory of plate tectonics. In the mid-1980s, when I first attended the AGU meeting at the Bill Graham Auditorium (where the Grateful Dead used to play), the big excitement was about modeling the Earth's interior with supercomputers.

These days, the most important science being presented at AGU is about the world's climate -- past, present and future. And this year's gathering, coming as it does on the heels of the Paris climate meetings, will get special attention from the media and public.

Press conferences next week will feature new developments in many fields, including these:

  • The first scientific results from NASA's new DSCOVR satellite, which images the whole Earth every day
  • The newest XPRIZE contest, targeting ocean technology
  • The state of Arctic and Antarctic ice
  • Earthquake hazards in the Himalaya after the April 24 Nepal quake
  • Forecasts of heat stress in large cities with the coming warmer climate
  • The currently unfolding El Niño event
  • The future of San Francisco's famous fog

Now is the time for all of us to learn more about climate science. And scientists themselves are doing more outreach to the public, whether it's by posting on Twitter, putting up videos on YouTube, maintaining Facebook pages or writing any number of climate-related blogs.

The AGU meeting is a prime place for scientists to interact in person. Morning coffee breaks and afternoon beer breaks allow people to loosen up and mix more freely, surrounded by thousands of poster presentations with their authors standing by. An early-morning 5K run always draws a crowd. Student mixers and honors ceremonies punctuate the week.

Amid the fun, the point of the AGU meeting is to awaken, exercise and sharpen scientific minds in ways that the lab, the library and the Internet cannot provide.