Professor Sahagian’s name tag reads “Dork” in big, bold letters. At first I mistake this for a bit of hipster irony, but I later find that Dork is actually his first name. He is a professor of Earth and environmental science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn. He’s come to San Francisco for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, an annual congress that draws 25,000 Earth scientists to Moscone Center every year.
“How do you draw a dead cow?” professor Sahagian asked as he put the finishing touches on his drawing of an erupting volcano on a dry erase board stretching several yards on the second floor of Moscone West. He’d already sketched a plane being ensnared by a cloud of ash. Now Sahagian wanted to show the volcano’s impact on living things.
“You draw it on its back with its legs sticking up in the air,” I said. “Legs up in the air is the universal symbol of dead things."
“That does look dead,” he remarked before he started to add a dead person.
“This is just for fun you know,” Sahagian added as he finished his grim landscape before hurrying off to his next talk.
The AGU set up the dry erase board wall for what they call “Sketch Your Science.” Geoscientists are encouraged to take a break from pondering the levels of atomic magnesium on Mars or a phenomenon called “the marine bipolar seesaw” right here on Earth by sketching their scientific specialties with colored markers.
A few panels down from Sahagian’s volcano, Veronica Tasmitt, a Ph.D. candidate at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, draws the bottom end of a globe centered on Antarctica to illustrate the “southern ocean upwelling spiral.”
“Comparatively warmer water from the North Atlantic flows into the Antarctic,” she said, explaining her three-color map.
Tasmitt admitted AGU can be overwhelming, but she appreciates the “fun things like drawing.”
“There are so many things I would never get at an ocean-specific conference,” she added.
At 3:30 p.m. the geoscientists at AGU really cut loose as kegs of Miller and Anchor Steam were wheeled into the concourse, and the line of thirsty geologists wrapped around the floor. There was also a line for coffee, but it was only a quarter as long as the one for beer. Pepsi drinks were just left in coolers with little fanfare.
“Geologists are known for their beer drinking,” a geoscientist who preferred not to be named told me.
“The beer is always good here,” Stuart Edwards of Newcastle University in the UK said as he waited for the server to pour some suds into a SOLO cup.
Kimberly Bitterwolf, a Ph.D. student studying geochemistry in river drainage basins at UC Santa Cruz, recalled another conference in New Orleans where attendees were only allotted one can of PBR at the end of the day.
“One can!” she exclaimed, shaking her head.
“It’s a very good thing they do here at AGU,” Edwards said, taking a drink of Anchor Steam.
And I couldn’t agree more as the bartender handed me a cold one.
Every month in “Shattering Conventions,” author Bob Calhoun crashes a new tradeshow, convention or conference looking for a way to fit in—even when he doesn't always belong. Calhoun is the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor." You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.