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 peculiarmo.blogspot.com .