washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Joel Achenbach
Rough Draft

An Earth-Shaking Experience

The shocking truth about scientists

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page W13

Last month's annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco drew an estimated 11,000 scientists, teachers, journalists and geophysics groupies. The schedule of talks could be found in a bound volume as thick as a phone book. You never see a geophysicist in ordinary life, but apparently the world is crawling with them.

They came to talk about everything from the ozone layer to the big wad of iron at the center of the Earth. Also about other planets. And magnetic fields. Solar wind. Water on Mars. To be at this convention was to be immersed to the eyebrows in scientific knowledge. It is intellectually fashionable to fetishize the unknown, but at AGU, a person will get the opposite feeling -- that science is a voracious, relentless and tireless enterprise, and that soon there may not remain on this Earth an unturned stone.

(Richard Thompson)

As a part-time science writer, I'm supposed to be a translator, deftly turning the complex into the comprehensible. Unfortunately, with each passing year the chasm between modern science and my medieval brain grows wider. Supposedly a writer isn't supposed to "dumb down" the material, but that's the only way I can get it to the point where I can understand it.

The only consolation is that scientists have the same problem. The sedimentary guys find the igneous guys inscrutable, and both groups refuse to be seen with metamorphicists. If you tell someone you're a paleomagnetologist, you'll be asked, "What kind?"

Despite their heterogeneity, scientists follow certain patterns of behavior. All use PowerPoint in their talks. They speak for 15 minutes, precisely. Unlike a political speech, a science talk never begins with a false note of self-deprecation or any attempt at humor whatsoever. Usually a scientist will speak in uber-jargon, which means the words must first be translated into jargon before the subsequent translation into ordinary language.

What happens in many sessions is that you go into a reverie, listening to the burble of a scientist, the words utterly incomprehensible but somehow reassuring, tumbling from the mountains of genius. The room is dark, and you remember fondly the days, decades ago, when after lunch you were permitted to lie down on your blanket and take a nap. The PowerPoint presentation shows yet another graph with dots arrayed around a curving line of allegedly tremendous significance. You never quite catch the units being used, or the time scale or the distance, and indeed the whole thing is three or four standard deviations from what you might actually be able to understand, but nonetheless you are pleased to hear that the data match the theory. People are figuring things out! They're paying attention! They understand what's going on! In your reverie you feel serene and safe, if tremendously stupid.

The individual presentations tend to take on very narrow slices of the universe. No one gives a talk titled "What's It All About?" Or: "Geophysics: The Big Picture." Or: "Our Friend, the Sun." No, here are the scintillating titles of some of the talks at the AGU meeting:

"Excitation of Earth's Incessant Free Oscillations by Atmosphere-Ocean-Seafloor Coupling."

"Observations of Ion Velocity Space Holes Associated with Magnetic Field Fluctuations in the Plasma Sheet."

And here's a grabber: "Variable Nitrogen Isotope Effects Associated with N2O Isotopologue Production: Towards an Understanding of Denitrification Mechanism."

To the lay person it might seem pointless, but a better word would be pointillist. They are adding a little dot of datum to what slowly emerges as a coherent picture of the world.

One day during the convention, a geologist gave a talk about a subduction zone, a place where the plates of Earth's crust meet, off the coast of Sumatra. One plate is diving beneath another, lurchingly. The scientist said he had warned the coastal residents of Sumatra that someday there would be a huge earthquake there and that it could create a deadly tsunami.

Less than two weeks later, the earth moved. The tectonic theory proved horribly correct. Thousands of people were swallowed by the sea, and no one today would say that geophysics is an esoteric subject.

But what is most tragic is that the collective genius of all these experts, combined with the sensors and satellite observations and seismographic data and all the other tools of science and technology, could not send the important message at the key moment: Run. Run for your lives.

Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer. You can read his strange ramblings on the Achenblog at washingtonpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company