Relative Importance of CRU

Dr. Ken Green claims that “CRU, as I understand it, was the dominant source for information entering the IPCC reports”. I found this assertion astonishing and implausible. I decided to come up with a quick test for this.

So I limit myself to chapter 3 of the AR4 WGI report, the one for which Jones is co-coordinating lead author, admittedly an important role. This is the atmospheric observations chapter, the one where CRU would be expected to be most influential.

Other than Jones, there is another co-ordinating author, (Trenberth, American), nine lead authors (one from the UK), by my count 66 coauthors, 10 of whom are from the UK, and three review editors (one from the UK). Of the dozen UK contributors out of the 80 participants from 16 countries, only Jones is currently at CRU.

The chapter cites about 825 papers. I checked the research staff of CRU against the bibliography looking only for first authorships to keep this project small. Of the 825 first authorships, four are P D Jones’, one goes to Manola Brunet, four to Nathan Gillett, and two to Malcolm Haylock, for a total of 11 out of 825, a very respectable showing indeed, but hardly the be-all and end-all of climate science. Recall this is in the most CRU-favorable of 11 chapters, so we can conclude that CRU originates roughly between a tenth of a per cent to a per cent of the information in the WGI report.

For comparison here is Trenberth’s group, the CAS at NCAR:

Dai seven, Deser six, Hurrell eleven, Madden one, D Schneider one, Trenberth 19, for a total of 45, or quadruple CRU’s output just from the one section at NCAR.

While at it I scanned for authors with four or more first author publications in AR4 WGI chapter 3, and came up with:

R P Allan (5)
V R Barros
J R Christy
A Dai (7)
C Deser (6)
C K Folland (6)
N P Gillett
D Y Gong (5)
P Ya Groisman (6)
J W Hurrell (11)
P D Jones
R H Kripalini (5)
D E Parker
T C Peterson (6)
W J Randel (7)
J A Renwick (5)
I Simmonds
B J Soden
B M Sun
D W J Thompson (8)
K E Trenberth (19)
R S Vose
B Wang
X L Wang (5)
P J Webster
X Zhang (6)

of whom I had only heard of Christy, Jones, Parker, Soden, Trenberth and Webster. Chapter 3 is just not my thing.

I leave it to Dr Green or others to find a chapter where CRU is better represented but I doubt that there is one. Conclusion: evidently CRU is not “the dominant source for information entering the IPCC reports”. It does appear that Trenberth’s Climate Analysis Section group at NCAR carries a lot of weight in chapter 3, and if anyone is a candidate for dominance based on Chapter 3 it would be the NCAR/UCAR/Colorado bunch.

Knappenberger’s Variation and Lippard’s Test

Update: Here’s what Paul Knappenberger at SPPI says about the EAU hacking:

“In his December 18, 2009 op-ed, Dr. Michael Mann largely misses to point about the most important aspect of the contents of the climate emails. It is not so much what has appeared in the scientific literature after “decades of work by thousands of scientists around the world” regarding human-caused climate change, but what has not appeared in the literature. The emails reveal signs of manipulation of the peer-review process, and what’s worse, intimidation of individual researchers, from a group of prominent scientists who seek to closely guard their view of the evidence and who are largely intolerant of countervailing hypothesis or interpretations. The degree to which the extant scientific literature can be judged a fair representation of what our scientific understanding may have been like absent these tactics is impossible to ascertain. The unfortunate, but undeniable side effect, is that the foundation of state, national, and international assessments of the potential impacts of climate change and considerations of what actions may be necessary to mitigate them has been shaken—not by what our knowledge is, but by what it should be. The latter of which, through the actions revealed in the emails, has been rendered largely unknowable.

Dr. Patrick Michaels, a close colleague of mine, expresses a similar sentiment (including some specific details) his recent op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal titled, “How to Manufacture a Climate Consensus.

So in other words, in the Knappenberger/Michaels view the climate community stands accused of not taking the contributions of the likes of Pat Michaels seriously. (See Ken Green’s point number 4).

I for one am willing to stand up and be counted among those who are guilty of that shocking approach. My defense, shabby though it may be, is that Pat Michaels doesn’t say anything worth taking seriously as science.

Starting from a blank slate, it looks like this. If a legitimate consensus has emerged, people like Michaels should be ignored in general because what they are saying is inconsistent with the state of knowledge. If it hasn’t, maybe (just maybe) they shouldn’t be. The fact that very little “skeptical” stuff (say, pointing to a sensitivity much below 2 C per CO2 doubling) is in the literature thus has two basically plausible explanations. One is that there is a conspiracy to keep them out, and the second is that the evidence is already in excluding the position so that very few serious papers are on offer.

There is nothing unusual about the second case. On the contrary, it happens almost every time science makes progress. If everyone who claims a conspiracy among peer reviewers in any science had a column in the Wall Street Journal, there would be very little room for financial news. The reasons the Journal picks Michaels over all the other probable cranks is left as an exercise for the reader.

So is there a test for the outsider to apply as to which condition is actually happening? Jim Lippard proposes one.

The creationists used to make similar claims about being locked out of the peer-reviewed literature, but when challenged, could never produce the rejection slips.

There seem to be a number of climate skeptics who have no problem getting published and cited–they happen to also be the ones with relevant credentials and expertise.

I think the burden of proof is on the conspiracy theorist. My cursory review of the CRU emails shows the main concern in discussions about peer review is bad work getting published (e.g., the 2003 Soon and Baliunas paper in _Climate Research_, which was admittedly, on the part of the editors, a failure of peer review to allow it to be published).

_Energy & Environment_ [a journal which is not highly regarded by mainstream scientists -mt] regularly publishes articles by climate skeptics. What work published there was rejected by a more reputable journal and is a game-changer on the scientific debate?

Thin Kool-Ade

“We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

The recent thread where I tried to explain how the CRU email kerfuffle partakes of the paranoid style in American politics got a lot of interest, thanks in large measure to an effort by Morano to Godwin the hell out of it. As usual, the bulk of the commentary from people from that quarter was predictably shallow, nasty and juvenile. What would you expect from a site that has mockery of science as its stock in trade?

Among all that was something a little different, a contact from Kenneth Green, a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (not to be confused with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, apparently, an error which I for one have been making). Ken, as he insists on being called, is taking a reasonably collegial approach to me and I will return the favor for now.

Nevertheless, he is responsible for some typical, um, naysayerist fantasies. Anyway, he has taken an interest in this humble blog and is so far being reasonably polite, so as an exercise let’s see if we can return the favor and maintain a collegial tone in conversations with Ken.

Ken is one of those people who think the CRU emails are a very big deal for climate science (and not worth mentioning as a matter for computer security all). Here is a recent article by him to that effect entitled “Who’s in denial now?”

Let’s enumerate his points:

  1. What’s catastrophic about Climategate is that it reveals a science as broken as Michael Mann’s hockey stick
  2. Mann’s Hockey stick erases the MWP and the LIA and is broken
  3. When you cherry-pick, discard, nip, tuck, and tape disparate bits of data into the most alarming portrayal you can in the name of a “cause,” you’re not engaged in science, but in the production of propaganda.
  4. this clique tried to subvert the peer-review process as well. They attempted to prevent others from getting into peer reviewed journals — thus letting them claim skeptic research wasn’t peer-reviewed — a convenient circular (and dishonest) way to discredit skeptics.
  5. Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was considered the top climate research community
  6. A Russian think-tank recently revealed the climate temperature record compiled by the Climatic Research Unit cherry-picked data from only 25 per cent of Russia’s climate monitoring sites

These points take about half the article. There follow several paragraphs about indignation, injury, threat to scientific integrity, etc. that have essentially nothing whatsoever to do with what might have been revealed in the emails. Let’s ignore them, because we are trying to determine what if anything the CRU hacking reveals.

Let me start with point 3, where there is at least a little meat to the story. It is apparent that the dendro guys have been plotting graphs in such a way as to distract the observer’s attention from the obvious recent weakness of their paleothermometer. While you have to choose what to emphasize and what to de-emphasize in public presentations, one could make a case that these graphs go too far. On the other hand, as I understand it, this is not news. Far too much attention has been given to the dendro people both by IPCC and opportunistically by the delayer camp. This issue was already known. All the emails reveal is that there was some internal disagreement about it.

Hardly a grand conspiracy even among dendrochronologists. And in any case old news.

As for the rest of it?

  1. Well, that’s a broad assertion. Let’s see what you have to support it.
  2. Old news and in no way revealed by the emails. Mann et al, in good faith but I belive erroneously, underrepresented multidecadal variability as elaborated by von Storch; this left the plot somewhat misleading in character, though in fact most later reconstructions, though more variable on a multidecadal time scale, remain within Mann’s confidence bounds. No scandal here, and nothing new.
  3. see above
  4. “Clique,” ” convenient circular (and dishonest) way to discredit skeptics”: see every crackpot pseudoscientific theory ever proposed for versions of this argument. This CAN describe the behavior of a dysfunctional science, but it ALSO describes the behavior of every science at its best. In fact, the same von Storch who shot Mann down in point 2 above was fiercely critical of one of the papers the Jones crowd complains most vociferously about. Perhaps it’s about quality, and not politics? Surely nothing new.
  5. The CRU does produce one of the main global observational time series. Is it the “leader of the pack” in any real sense? This is completely news to me. See, the observational time series is a relatively small part of the record. How else could the Charney report have gotten the future so right even before the observational record showed any warming at all? This is new, but it’s a wild assertion and has nothing to do with the emails.
  6. Deltoid and Climate Progress have something on this; a minor subplot of a minor subplot in any case. And nothing to do with the emails.

So what is going on? Perhaps nothing, perhaps almost nothing. Does this cast doubt on an entire science?

The answer is, for some people, yes. It’s little surprise if that is all people hear about climate science. But it shouldn’t be all they hear, and if this article is any indicator, it’s all innuendo and nothing much of substance.

The amazing part of this is, if you look at Ken’s “Climategate reveals” article, anything of even a little substance (and there really isn’t much there) was not revealed in the hacked information!

We need to start with what the outlines of that science are. No climate scientist would start telling the story with tree rings and millenial scale variability. The observational record itself is only important for public understanding. The whole core of the science lies elsewhere.

To support the naysayer camp’s fantasies, you have to

  • A) throw away all theory
  • B) throw away all paleoclimatology
  • C) ignore all the past successes of model projections
  • D) crown Jones king of the world
  • E) make a very big deal out of a few comments of his, and finally
  • F) dethrone Jones.

This is at least a well-trodden path for the What-Me-Worry crowd, the role of king having been played by Mann and Santer in the past. (Oddly enough, Hansen really does play a relatively large role in the science for an individual, but they haven’t had comparable success in going after him.) So far, the scapegoat-du-jour hasn’t done much if anything actually culpable, but you know if you repeat something often enough people will start to believe it. But how do the people repeating it convince themselves as well?

So, Ken, is this all you’ve got? Are you really drinking this kool-ade you’re peddling? Because so far you’ve mixed it mighty thin.

Update: Here’s some more detailed stuff from Ken. Part I and Part II.

I can’t say I’m happy with Wigley’s ’05 comment (see Part II), especially considering his use of the word “skeptic”. RP Jr is already running with this one and there’s useful followup at that link.

Ken also raises interesting questions about peer review.
That said, there’s a lot he seems to get wrong.

NOTE: I will moderate this thread fiercely for ad homs and intemperate language, especially from the realistic side. I would like to see if ANYBODY can come up with ANYTHING that justifies the CRU email hacking. Let’s try to be as congenial as possible to people who think there is something to this business, and see if they can explain to us what exactly we are supposed to be upset about. Be as sarcastic or argumentative as you want about people’s points, but lay off their motivations and character please.

The Science Budget Talking Point

REPOSTING: The following was originally posted April 8, 2007. (Note: the first dozen comments are also from 2007.)

I am hoping to see recent numbers. I imagine the 2010 budget will show some improvement but as far as I know the annual US budget for climate science research (as opposed to data collection or impacts studies) through 2009 remains comparable to the budget for a Pixar movie.

I believe that the sort of auditability people are asking for is 1) actually a good idea and 2) not supportable by tghe present small community with its tightly constrained budget. Given that the actual issue is four or five orders of magnitude larger than the science budget, it makes sense to expend considerably more on a more formal science. Meanwhile, people who are complaining about the informality and close-knit nature of the community should be advocating for budget increases, not cuts.

The auditability people are butting heads against the myth that the climate science community is wealthy.

April 8, 2007

The claim that scientists have been conspiratorially drumming up climate fears to increase our funding appears specious to most of us. How would such a conspiracy be organized? How would we prevent defections? Nevertheless this idea has currency with the public. Supporting this argument is the idea, apparently promoted by Lindzen that the climate science budget has ballooned enormously.

It is true that there are 2 billion under a “climate change” rubric, but in fact half of it is NASA’s earth observation missions, a program which I would think any sane person would support. The massive “growth” of the program in its early days was not due to new projects but due to enfolding existing projects under the new name.

So what has happened to the science budget over the past sixteen years in fact? It has increased by 9% after inflation. Adjusted for inflation, actual US climate research (not data collection, not data dissemination, not technology or adaptation research, not impacts research, but the part that climate scientists stand to benefit from, has increased by 9% since 1993 according to the GAO.

More or less. The GAO adds the caveat “these data were difficult to compare over the entire time period because CCSP periodically introduced new categorization methods without explaining how the new methods were related to the ones they replaced”. (page 4)

Can the climate research budget actually been in decline? Anecdotally, I have been hearing about “belt tightening” through my entire career.

The climate research budget of NSF, which funds most of what most of us think of as climate science, including most climate modeling, is inconsistent over the period. It has wild oscillations but shows no trend. (see p 35 of the GAO report; note these figures are not inflation-adjusted) and is about 10% of the total CCSP budget, about 200 million, enough to support maybe about 600 scientists and professional staff (consider infrastructure needs, travel and publication costs, and equipment).

What about the near future? Well, here I can only report the entire CCSP aggregate, which is [12/09: sorry, link is dead] in a period of rapid decline, of about 20% over 4 years.

Boy, this scaremongering isn’t paying as well as you might think.

Admittedly, most of the cuts are out of NASA’s earth observation budget, which is a bit beside the point, though it is really enormously unfortunate. However, Mars seems to be a bigger priority than the Earth these days, because, um, well because you don’t need a rocketship to get to the Earth, now do you?

Bug Report

Bug Report (cartoon via xkcd)

Does “climategate” really have “legs”? The CRU hacking incident seems to be doing damage even though not all that large of an audience professes interest.

Two Alarming Observations

My friend and occasional critic Victor has recently been, from a standing start, taking an interest in climate science and climate change. Victor is a mathematician/programmer and a successful computational scientist. He has found a couple of things I have said convincing, found Alley’s keynote compelling, and is reading Archer’s textbook now.

He said a couple of things over coffee yesterday that fits in with my impressions, and it’s something we very much need to think about, in the context of the remarkable and discouraging success of the swifthacking publicity push.

The first is that, in researching any climate-related question that has crossed his mind of late, Google (presumably Bing is no better) seems to come up with nine denialist sites for every actually informative site. This was Victor’s estimate, not mine.

The second is that he has been entangled in a debate with a “climategate” afficionado on a mailing list for computational music.

Both of these facts attest to the political brilliance of the opposition.

The progressive left has been congratulating itself with its grasp of the internet as a marketing tool, starting with the Dean campaign and going through the Obama campaign, but is constrained by an ethical sense which doesn’t burden the opposition. Marc Morano, to the extent he has orchestrated these events, and/or whoever else is behind it, is a political genius unfettered by decency.

Let’s consider what has happened. (It is sort of the opposite of a “miracle”.)

The Ludicrous Conspiracy Theory

A ludicrous theory exists that people have invented “global warming” from whole cloth in order to advance either our own personal interests (the idea mocked by the title of this blog) or, more recently, a subversive political agenda intended to

  • 1) weaken the west in favor of the less developed countries
  • 2) weaken the less developed countries in favor of the west
  • 3) reinstate a Stalinist totalitarian state or
  • 4) corner the energy market and drive small businesses into bankruptcy.

The various elaborations of the theory are strikingly mutually inconsistent, but details of the vast conspiracy are left to innuendo, stoking the particular paranoia of the listener.

The Violation of Privacy and Probably of Law

As everyone with the slightest interest in the matters of this blog already knows, some emails and other files were published on the internet under circumstances that reek of data theft and violation of law and decency, including an attempted illegal hijacking of the RealClimate site. Nevertheless, the act is being called “whistle blowing”.

What Was Actually Revealed

  • a rehash of a well-known controversy about how to present tree-ring data
  • frustration about too much attention to substandard scientific papers slipped into the literature by marginally qualified people with nonscientific agendas, and discussions about how to handle that
  • frustration about opposition by filibuster via freedom of information requests
  • a single suggestion about “deleting emails”, without any context, which plausibly does not refer to deleting emails from a server (scientists are probably aware that end users cannot really do this) but rather to deleting them from a response to one of many FOIA requests
  • some sloppy code and a pretty sad but perfectly typical lack of understanding of the advantages of dynamic programming languages
  • a couple of fudge factors explicitly labeled as such probably used in testing, commented out
  • some older data for which CRU is not the originator or primary repository is not in any known dataset at CRU
  • about 985 emails and 1995 other files of no apparent interest to anyone

In other words, (with the possible exception of the email deletion incident, which I imagine the lawyers are fretting about) the only things remotely unusual here are a direct consequence of the existence of a politically rather than scientifically motivated opposition.

How This is Spun

People who have been able to convince themselves of the existence of a conspiracy are able to convince themselves that the thousand emails are totally incriminating, and that anyone who is mentioned in any of the emails (including Revkin, Pielke Jr, Annan, etc.) and by extension even anyone who “believes in” something like the IPCC position is in fact part of this vast and monumentally evil conspiracy which obviously will assassinate anyone who gets the least bit out of line. After all, NOBODY (of the cast of thousands) has ever confessed, so the threats as well as the rewards must be vast; you’d think someone’s conscience if not their desire to write a million-selling expose would get the better of them.

See for example this ludicrous attack on William Connolley’s excellent efforts to keep politics out of climate science at Wikipedia, and the follow-up comment here

Doesn’t the fact he is being paid by the Climate Research Unit to astroturf Wikipedia for the AGW POV pose a fiduciary conflict of interest with his role as editor here? I thought astroturfing was banned at Wikipedia?

What sort of world does this person live in where an academic research unit has money to pay people to subvert Wikipedia, I wonder. Anyway, the above fortunately was met with the appropriate rejoinder:

Since that hasn’t happened no. Please don’t abuse the word “fact” in future.

It’s interesting to see the Wikipedia process in action. But it’s amazing to see what sorts of things the conspiracy-tuned mind comes up with.

How This Spreads

We’ve all seen the overheated rhetoric in the press. The Wall Street Journal has been particularly egregious. The message received by the public is simply that “some climate scientists have fudged some data”. Since there are plenty of examples of dishonest scientists in other fields, this isn’t hard for people to believe.

Is Jones blameless? I am not sure. Is any of this important? Well, no.

It surely is no evidence of a conspiracy to see Jones or Mann being argumentative in emails against other scientists; surely it is the opposite of a sign of the massive big-bucks evil windmill conspiracy of the IPCC.

What’s hard to understand is the pervasiveness of the whole thing on the internet: the fact that people flogging conspiracies far more extreme than appear in even the Wall Street Journal or the National Post appear everywhere, and the prevalence of their websites. Here is the secret weapon of the denial squad; and I would be surprised if it isn’t operative around other extravagant right-wing conspiracy fantasies.

Am I Taking This All A Bit Too Seriously?

You’ll forgive me. The fact that my paternal grandfather among other close relatives was in fact killed at a concentration camp on the basis of right-wing conspiracy theories makes it hard for me to take the matter all that lightly. I don’t imagine that climate scientists are going to be rounded up and gassed anytime soon, but the reinvention of the techniques for stirring up mass paranoia would disturb me greatly even if they weren’t directed, you know, at me and at some of the people I respect most in the world.

So What is Going On?

Somebody or something is motivating people to repeat conspiracy theories about science on the internet. This is what we need to understand.

Even the most extreme of them pretend to the purest of motivations, but they are inaccessible to reason. There is a small grain of truth in what they say, scientists being human and all. Honest people cannot claim to the sorts of certainty that dishonest people can claim, after all.

Meanwhile, legitimate and honest inquiry keeps bubbling up. Some people are legitimately skeptical, and people looking into it have varying degrees of capacity for examining technical evidence. The purpose of “climategate” it seems was not to disrupt Copenhagen. Copenhagen was going to flounder of its own accord, and very few people there were taking this matter seriously.

No, the purpose of “climategate” was explicitly a Googlebombing. It was to keep real science and real policy discussion out of sight of people taking the occasion to investigate climate science. As such, it was a shocking and discouraging success. Even defenses against these calumnies, necessary as they are, actually help the bombing process along.

In the end, we need to tell the truth, but we also have to motivate people to understand it and repeat it and rehash it, so the network isn’t swamped with noise if for no other reason. It’s not as if we can convince the most extreme people of anything of course. What we need is for valid information to be as easy to find and absorb as lies and paranoid pathologies. At least let’s try to get to the point where people easily find a reasonable point of view to weigh against any paranoid theory.

Sympathy for the Devil

A couple of odd personalities are at the center of all this. In particular there is Steve McIntyre, and some genuine skeptics among his followers. Eli recommends we treat McIntyre with the same sort of contempt we justifiably aim at the likes of Singer and Michaels. I disagree. While he doesn’t exactly play by the rules, McIntyre raises some real issues.

I think there is a real point that the stakes are higher than they have been, that the conduct of climate science needs to be formalized, and that data provenance and computational reproducibility are henceforth core issues for our field. I am deeply disappointed that we did not understand this ten years ago when the first controversies erupted regarding the Mann hockey stick.

What traditional practitioners of climate relevant sciences need to understand is that the practice of science must change as we transition from a curiosity-driven field to a necessity-driven one. We also need to grasp that our methods of bringing people into the fold do not scale, and do not meet the very real, substantial and important demand for outside review.

On the other hand, people casting themselves as our opposition need to understand that such changes do not come easily or cheaply. If we need to make a transition to an engineering-level discipline we need to be funded like one. Certainly advocates of geoengineering need to support a vastly invigorated climate modeling discipline.

The Bottom Line

Finally, and yet again, critics of our field (and to some extent I count myself among them) need to understand a crucial fact. Costs increase nonlinearly with the amount of climate change. Therefore, the less you trust the IPCC results, the more dangerous the risk profile you face, and the more severe the constraints on carbon emissions and other anthropogenic forcings need to be. Yet, almost everybody argues this crucial point backwards.

Update 12/25: Morano is featuring this story prominently. Apparently he works Christmas Day.

Update 12/26: Obviously I’m being Godwinned here. I am amazed that right wing people have so little grasp of what “right wing” means and what the dangers of that point of view are, but I suppose leftwingers probably disown Stalin in pretty much the same way.

Anyway, the point about the dangers of deliberately invoked public paranoia is the key to this whole piece, so it has to stand, Godwin or no.

That said, I don’t want to spend time on the ridiculous argument about which flavor of totalitarian disaster Nazism is. It’s not an especially relevant piece of historical, um, controversy. So “right-wing” is removed as a descriptor of paranoia. I think that improves the article anyway.

Update 12/26: A related article at the Christian Science Monitor.

Update 12/28: A related article at Media Matters and a related video by Potholer54.

Note: The discussion thread for this article is closed at 100 comments. Please feel free to continue comment on this related posting.

Question Authority, but Don’t Stop There!

Questioning authority is something we boomers deserve both credit and blame for in ample quantities. It’s embedded in American culture, amplified by the boomer-inspired culture industry, and a point of constant friction for some of us Americaphiles who are attracted to the country but not entirely of it.

The incredibly creative and yet isolated and xenophobic culture of rural America has a lack of confidence in authority at its very roots, roots which go back to Scots and Irish oppression in 18th and 19th century Britain, and which were fundamentally at the roots of the creation of Kentucky and Texas in particular, and much of the west and middle south as a consequence.

This resentment of government is coupled with a strangely contrary enthusiasm for local authority including the church and the military, and perhaps as a direct consequence, a very high tolerance for logical contradiction. It’s hard to, you know, argue, in the positive sense of argument, with people who have no trouble holding contrary opinions, who’ve never learned the disadvantages of doing so.

Anyway, the point is that rock and roll, the ultimate expression of the genius of America, came from those very same Appalachian hills. As a consequence, via this attitude reflected through the powerful and emotive media of music and film, the whole world has been echoing the Appalachian mountain man’s defiance and suspicion of authority and profound attachment to local interests.

The trouble with questioning authority, of course, doesn’t come from the question; it comes from the complete indifference to the answer.

Photo Essay: A Scientific Congress

For readers who haven’t attended a large scientific meeting, this is an attempt to capture the scene.

You arrive in an attractive corner of an attractive city, which you will not find time to explore. In this case it is the “Fall AGU” meeting in San Francisco, with about 16,000 attendees from earth, planetary and solar sciences. The AGU is the American Geophysical Union. Some atmospheric scientists go to this meeting. Others prefer the American Meteorological Society’s meetings which are almost as large but more thematic.

As you approach the conference center, you see an increasing concentration of nerdy looking people, some prominently wearing nametags with a blue ribbon denoting “MEMBER”. In the following picture, the two grinning vaguely Euro guys with bad haircuts (one has red sneakers) are almost certainly scientists, for example.

As you enter the main building, the scale of the event begins to dawn upon you.

You encounter four enormous hallways, each lined with large meeting rooms.

For most of the day, brief 15 minute talks are being given in each room. Sessions are about two hours, and eight or so related talks are typically given.

The schedule for each room is posted outside the room

Choosing which sessions to attend can be challenging.

Much of the real activity takes place in the hallway, though, where tables are set up for impromptu meetings. Colleagues whose paths have diverged re-establish old acquaintances and thrash out new ideas, and new alliances are forged.

At AGU, the poster session is in a separate building, and there’s much pedestrian traffic between the two.

Not every proposed talk is accepted, but almost everyone is welcome to put up a poster in a poster session.

Although the poster section is enormous, posters are only up for one day.

Each poster’s author is available at a specified time to discuss his or her poster. (*)

There is also a trade show for books

for special purpose equipment

and for shiny rocks! (*)

At AGU the trade show and the poster session are in the same massive hallway. (*)

A few special invited 90-minute talks take place in especially huge rooms, and these are often the highlight of the formal events. I especially enjoyed Richard Alley’s talk this year. It was standing room only in this enormous hall. (Fortunately the fire marshalls did not catch on so I caught the whole thing.)

In the evening, if you are so inclined, the oddity of San Francisco is at your disposal. (*)

Most attendees will group up in fours, fives and sixes and look for quiet hotel bars to talk shop, though.

Note, if you click on pictures marked with an asterisk (*) you can see a higher resolution version. Those of you who enjoy my photos are invited to peruse my photoblog at .