Sunday, December 2, 2012

AGU 2012: Travel day

As a professional scientist, I receive a number of publications from the professional societies that I belong to. There’s APS News from the American Physical Society, EOS from the American Geophysical Union, Physics Today from both, AWIS Magazine from the Association for Women in Science, Radiations from Sigma Pi Sigma (the Physics Honorary Society), The Gazette from the APS Committees on the Status of Women in Physics and Minorities. When do I have time to read these? Usually never, so they stack up on my desk, in my backpack, wherever I put stuff that I might get a chance to read them. Occasionally I go through them, but find an article I want to read thoroughly, so the entire thing still has to be saved for later.

Well, it turns out that a >5 hour flight from Dulles to San Francisco (to attend the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting), plus the preceding hour and a half flight delay spent at Dulles is a great time to catch up on these publications. Oh, and I also threw in my absolutely favorite (non-scientific) magazine, Brain, Child, which almost succumbed to the current struggles of the print industry but was thankfully resurrected by one of its loyal readers. I got through all of it, with almost two hours to spare. So I broke open my laptop to write this blog post about it.

My backlog went to the August issue of Physics Today. Wow, 4 months behind. Well, what I brought along wasn’t all-inclusive. For instance, I usually get through the EOSs, so I only had 1 to fully read and 2 with articles that I was saving to read. Physics Today is usually the last one I get to, so it has the worst backlog.

I learned two very useful items in all that reading (along with several tidbits). 

First, I teach workshops on the Sun and Space Weather. Coronal mass ejections and other stuff from the Sun interact with Earth’s magnetic field to cause geomagnetic storms. During these storms, charged particles in the bubble of space created by Earth’s magnetic field get energized and flow around this bubble. These energetic particles can damage satellites and overload power grids on Earth. I point out that Earth would be hit directly by loads of energetic particles if we didn’t have the magnetic field to slow things down. I often get asked if we’d be in trouble if the Earth’s magnetic field reverses direction, as it does on an irregular basis of approximately 10,000 year intervals. Until now, I didn’t know the answer to this question. But a “Backscatter Image” in one of the Physics Today issues answered the question. (The Backscatter Image is a 1-page image with a brief discussion of the physics that image portrays, appearing on the last page of each issue.) Earth’s magnetic field is usually a dipole, it has two poles (North and South), like a bar magnet. But it also has a quadrupole (4 poles) mode. The image was created by a computer simulation of Earth’s magnetic field that demonstrated two dipole modes, one for each direction, with the quadrupole  mode occurring between the two. Thus, the magnetic field will never go to zero during a reversal, it will just have a more complicated quadrupole geometry.

The second useful thing that I learned was in the Radiations magazine about a project called Career Pathways that is studying and compiling best practices in preparing physics majors for a variety of careers. I am currently leading an effort to implement such practices on an interdisciplinary level at my institution. Now I have another source of information to look into as we develop our program.
And when I get to San Francisco, I can dump a bunch of weight into the recycling bin, except for those two articles that I want to save. Now what am I going to do on the return flight?

Going to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting provides a unique experience. When you are one of over 20,000 scientists heading to the same place, you easily run into a bunch of them during your travels. As I boarded the plane, I heard a couple of people discussing how they were getting to the meeting from their hotel. As I got to my seat, the person next to me asked if I was heading to AGU. My poster tube was a dead giveaway. He is a freelance science writer heading to the meeting to write stories on exciting science. As we discussed AGU, the couple in front of us said they were headed there too, the husband a hydrologist. It can be an overwhelming meeting with that many people, but the variety of science that is covered is amazing. From earthquakes to oceans to volcanoes to climate to the Sun and the planets!

1 comment:

  1. Please write a post about the AGU. I would love to hear what you find interesting there.