Fieldwork in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Monday, 18 December 2017

Science, Sazerac and Steamers: AGU 17, New Orleans

After a heavy night with a few of the ex-UEA mountaineering club members visiting us in The London it was an unpleasant early morning trudge to the tube station nursing a hangover. With perfect timing it just so happened that I was flying out on the one day that Hell (sorry, London, nope, right the first time) froze over. Heavy snow meant minor panic, as all public transport was buggered and it started to look as though a tube might not turn up at all. Thankfully it did and it turned out that there was no worry of missing my flight as it ended up delayed for 3 hours. There was only one de-icing truck available and it was snowing so heavily that once they’d defrosted one side of the plane the previous side had re-frozen up and needed doing again….This, of course, meant I missed my connecting flight which took off 5 minutes before I landed in Atlanta. Luckily, avoiding a repeat of last time this happened to me, they managed to get me the last seat on the last plane to New Orleans that evening. Although, from the sound of things, plenty were not so lucky, airports around the west coast of the US must have been full of stressed out scientists snuggling up to their poster tubes that night.

AGU was intense, having been to EGU (the European version in Vienna) during my PhD and thinking that was pretty big, I was expecting something of a similar scale. I was wrong, it was unfathomably massive. There were over 25,000 geoscientists in attendance and over 20,000 talks and posters to see….that is a fuck ton of exciting new scientific research being shared. The conference centre was over a kilometre long, it took over 20 minutes to get from one end to the other with all the crowds; thankfully all the Planetary Science talks were clustered together so I didn’t have to run about much – although still managed to average about 15,000 steps a day just getting about!

Due to the sheer number of coevally running sessions it was not possible to see everything I had an interest in (if you’ve read this blog before you may have noticed I get involved in an eclectic mix of sciences) so I stuck with the Planetary Science sessions as that’s what I work with at the moment. Running between talks on Martian surface processes and outer solar system geochemistry – my main 2 things at the moment. There was some exciting results being presented from all the current missions that are on the go at the minute – especially from Mars Curiosity and the recently deceased Cassini probe, so lots of cool space pictures.
Bourbon Street in the French Quarter

I was there to present a poster on our latest paper on the effects of hydration state on Martian perchlorate salts, about which a summary blog post will be coming soon once the open access version of the article is out (you can read the pre-proofed version of the article here, although it is temporarily pay walled). Unfortunately, despite good intentions of being well rested and fresh for the 8am session, the night before got pretty heavy. It is apparently impossible to have a quiet drink in New Orleans and we ended up in a bar with a pretty cool band drinking Sazeracs (the local speciality cocktail, laced with absinthe) with random other scientists until the early hours. This was partly because my mate fancied the band’s singer (oh, shit, I was supposed to never mention that again) but also because this is what happened EVERY SINGLE NIGHT.

Bourbon Street at night, watching people 'get got'
As it turns out, an AGU poster session is not the place to be with an absinthe-derived hangover, they are intense AF. What was cool was that everyone was super positive about the results and I now have a few things to try in the lab for future work that have come out of the chats we had. The argument I was sort of expecting with the research group whose work our work is directly contradicting never came, which I guess is good as it would probably have ended with me spewing up on a senior NASA scientists shoes… I did have a minor fan-girly moment when one of the old professors who’s big on the Curiosity Rover team came up to collect a copy of our paper though.

New Orleans is a great locality for a conference, as somebody who hates being in cities, this is definitely one of the best I’ve been to. Every evening was spent exploring the French Quarter or the Riverside area, hanging out in ridiculously cool bars listening to spectacular live music – lots of Jazz – and drinking great local craft ales and Sazerac. The food was also amazing, blackened fish, shrimp, deep fried catfish and crawdads, so good, although I didn’t get round to trying any ‘gator.

Apparently everything that lives in the river/gulf can and will be deep fried

 While really cool, the area does have quite the seedy side and there were plenty of con-artists out trying to swindle tourists – they must have seen the conference attendees from a mile off, us scientists are not known for our street-smarts. The popular scam is offering a shoe shine then betting the tourist they can tell them exactly where, on what street in which city they got their shoes. The scam answer being ‘On the bottom of yo’ feet, in this street’ and then getting all up in their face and calling over their mates if they don’t hand over the ‘Ten for the shine, and ten for the line’. Must’ve made a killing this week based on the number of guys getting got we spotted while sat up on a balcony overlooking Bourbon Street. Also, someone had altered a pedestrian roadworks diversion to funnel you into a grotty looking strip club, we noticed we were being herded just in time to avoid this one, sneaky bastards.

 On Wednesday afternoon we skipped out the conference to do some touristy stuff. The choice was an airboat swamp tour or a paddle steamer jazz cruise. Sadly at this time of year the alligators would’ve all been hibernating at the bottom of the swamp, so we opted for the steamer. Best. Idea. Ever. Cruising down the Mighty Mississippi, seeing the sights, learning a bit of history from the captain (who had the Louisiana accent ever), listening to jazz and chilling with a few beers was clearly the highlight of the week.

Steaming down the Mississippi
All in, it was an amazing week; exciting science and great times, I wonder if Washington will be able to compare next year? Somehow I doubt it…

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