Friday, 30 August 2013

Confessions of a conference attendee

Day 8: 30th August

Up early and off to a ticket office for entry to the Duomo dome, Campanile etc.

There are 465 steps to the top of the dome so important to get there early rather than being stuck behind slow moving tourists. I was there for 8.15 and was about 15th in the queue. To my mind the Duomo dome was more impressive than the pictures in the Uffizi – you can’t beat the solidity of bricks and mortar and there is a joy, for me at any rate, of climbing up winding stairways behind walls, a little like walking through secret passages. Initially the route takes you out to the walk way around the inside of the cupola, just below the level of the massive fresco that covers the inside of the dome. This is slightly vertiginous, the walk way is about 50 cm wide and projects out from the wall but the close up of the fresco is incredible, particularly fun are the depictions of hell and damnation - various people being eaten or prodded by people with pointy horns and tails and a few skeletons prancing about as well. Then it is onwards and upwards. The cupola has a double dome design, one inside the other and the stairs lead you up between the two. Towards the top the stairs are steep and curved and I was reminded of some of the routes up holy mountains I’ve experienced in China. At the top the view of course was fantastic with all of Florence laid out before you.

Then it was back to the conference in time for an excellent talk on B incorporation into  forams (important for climate reconstruction). I also attended a good talk that suggests that oxygen isotope fractionation in soil solution is not significant in temperate climates (sorry, a bit technical but important for the well being of our embryonic earthworm-poo based thermometer). Finally on the way out I bumped into Don Porcelli from Oxford for a quick chat about earthworms and Ben Harte from Edinburgh. Ben Harte organised the Goldschmidt conference in Edinburgh in 1994 in which I was a slide projectionist - do we miss slides and jammed projectors? No we don't.
I bought some lunch in the covered market, popped up the Duomo campanile for another good view of Florence and then went into the  octagonal shaped building next to the Duomo - officially the Battistero di San Giovanni. The unpromising outside (though the doors are rather splendid) gives way to a simply stunning interior - a fantastic Byzantine mosaic covering the dome. This is incredible and far outshines the Uffizi.
The end of conferences are often sad, there are the thoughts of missed opportunities: did you miss the best talks? Should you have gone to more talks? Did you convince people that the science you were doing is fantastic? (possibly is the answer!). There is also a slow drift of people away from the conference, numbers in talks get fewer and fewer as the day goes on. Pity the scientist giving a talk at 5 pm on the last day of a conference.
All told it has been good. Florence is a great city to visit. I attended some good talks. I met up with friends and made new acquaintances.  Now there is a day of travelling to get back home, two days at work then off to Diamond for a two day course on Infrared spectroscopy.

The main mystery remaining is why is Florence also called Firenze? I have difficulty understanding why a city has two different names, perhaps one for best?

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Confessions of a conference attendee

Day 7: 29th August

This evening there is the sound of drums and chanting in the distance. It's all rather reminiscent of an old jungle based movie ("the heat, the flies, those damned drums!") in which the tribes are gathering for war. In reality what I can hear is the locals cheering on their beloved Fiorentina football club.
Today Emma Versteegh and I were running a session on biomineralization and biogeochemical cycling. All told it went well. Running a session is always exciting. The chief concern being whether speakers stick to time or not. At a conference with 20+ parallel sessions each comprising 15 minute talks sticking to time is paramount so that people can scuttle from session to session to try and catch different talks. All our speakers turned up and kept to time. Added to that there was an audience so all told a successful session!
We had talks on earthworm secreted calcium carbonate (obviously the highlight!), a talk on using isotopes to show that a so called "terror bird" from pre-history was probably a cute vegetarian with an over-sized beak and some interesting talks on silica in soils showing how soils are slowly being depleted of the sort of silica that is easily taken up by plants and how this might affect plant yields in the future.

Other than our own sessions highlights were a talk in which my work was cited (thank you Andy Bray) which is always good for the ego and a fun talk in which the C isotope signature of the paper that past editions of scientific journals were printed on was being analysed to investigate climate change. The journals, Nature and Proceedings of the Royal Society, have a very good age constraint and date back to the mid 1800s so are good for looking at fairly recent climate change, or will be in the method works.

There has also been time to discuss some corrections to a paper looking at the impact of CO2 levels and temperature on granule production rates by earthworms with Emma, look over a draft MSc thesis for a student and mark an MRes thesis. All very productive.


Confessions of a conference attendee

Day 6: 28th August (posted retrospectively)

A mixed day dodging and weaving between sessions, trying to search out that killer talk. The most fun talk I heard today was about earthworm invasions. In Europe we always think of earthworms as happy little creatures keeping our soil healthy. In the northern US the last glaciation wiped out the indigenous earthworm population and European earthworms, that came to the US in the soil used as ballast, associated with European plants and, increasingly as fishing bait, are slowly spreading into the earthworm-free Sugar maple forests. They are having a significant effect on the ecology of the forests reducing the thickness of the layer of leaf litter on the soil surface and changing soil properties. It's a great natural experiment to see the effect of earthworms and Kyungsoo Yoo from the University of Minnesota gave an excellent talk on this.

I also spent some time looking at the outside of the Duomo cathedral. I'm always amazed at the amount of time and energy people put into building these things in the past. The plan is to return on Friday to have a look inside and also, early in the morning, pop up the tower for a view over Florence.

In the afternoon Emma Versteegh and I had a poster detailing our novel palaeothermometer showing how we can use the oxygen isotopes in earthworm-secreted calcium carbonate to interpret past climates. We got quite a lot of interest and chatted about how we can take the study forwards.

This evening there was a concert courtesy of the conference - string quartet, spinet and an alto for some songs. The concert was OK but the soprano used far to much vibrato for the early music (Vivaldi, Pergolesi etc.) that she was singing and the musicians came across as journeymen professionals rather than being excited by the music. There was much clapping (too much?) at the end so perhaps this critic was in a minority.

Confessions of a conference attendee

Day 5: 27th August (posted retrospectively)

Truth be told I found yesterday rather dull. Today I had a better plan. I got up bright and early and queued outside the Uffizi gallery to buy a ticket. The Uffizi gallery is listed as a “Must see” in all the guidebooks, having a whole load of pictures collected by the Medici’s including various Botticellis. The ticket office opens at 8.15 and I got there at about 7.40, there were only 15 or so people ahead of me. I could have gone in straight away but I bought a ticket for 12.30 then headed off to the conference. I had my eye on two sessions - one on soils (known as "the critical zone" at geochemistry conferences to try and sex them up) and another on the formation of calcium carbonate. I heard some good talks by which I mean talks that make you think about your own data, think of new experiments or see ways in which you could do experiments differently. In my case there were some good thoughts about how soil particles stick together and also how to try and spot proteins in calcium carbonate. Then it was off to the Uffizi.
The Uffizi was excellent. There were some stunning paintings by various Italian masters. Many were originally hung in churches / formed the backs of altars. It made me wonder what the churches felt like - a bit like the Greeks (justifiably) wanting the Elgin marbles back perhaps. There was one painting that had been in a nunnery and apparently the nuns got a copy of the painting and a full upgrade of the nunnery plumbing in exchange for the original. Seems like a fair deal. The other interesting thing to note was that the original Botticellis looked far better than the posters you can buy. I guess this is vaguely reassuring!

Confessions of a conference attendee

Day 4: 26th August (posted retrospectively)
First day of the conference proper and everyone is very keen. The talks start at 9 a.m. and are well attended. There’s a minor problem in that the rooms where the talks are given are rather dark and stuffy (unless the air conditioning is on threatening to drown out the speaker!). The rooms have movable partition walls and whilst that’s understandable in terms of giving the venue a flexible space it does mean that it is quite noisy.

Each day as well as the talks there are poster sessions and I duly stuck up a poster I’d brought along for a small White Rose (Universities of Sheffield, Leeds and York) project on earthworm secreted calcium carbonate. Poster sessions are wonderful places to observe human behaviour.  It is somewhat akin to being in a bazaar with hawkers positioned at their posters keen to pull customers in and customers often avoiding eye contact so as to be able to pass a poster without getting stuck there for 30 minutes whilst someone talks to you about it.

Confessions of a conference attendee

Day 3: 25th August (posted retrospectively)

A good long sleep has set me up well to spend the day exploring Florence. My guidebook lists 3 walking tours so I decided to do “Walking tour 1” which should take me around Florence. The walk appeared to involve following a bus route, at least initially making me think that “walking tour” was somewhat inaccurate and that the guide book was probably aimed at the majority of people, who, according to a recent newspaper article, never venture more than 500 m from their car. The walk took in the old city wall, the old city gate of Porta Romana, then up hill to Piazalle Galileo before a slow descent back into central Florence via a lovely church San Miniato al Monte – apparently a good example of Romanesque architecture and on a site that has had a church since the time of Charlemagne - and Piazzale Michelangelo with its stunning views across Florence. Then it was time for conference registration and the general initial mingling of delegates / bumping into colleagues and friends.

Confessions of a conference attendee

Day 2: 24th August (posted retrospectively!)

The day started nice and early with the bang of the corridor door at 6 am. The joys of airport hotels. Still it was a good alarm clock. All went well with my travel up to arrival in Rome (though annoyingly in Paris – I flew Air France via Paris – I saw there was a flight to Florence leaving at the same time as my flight to Rome, can’t think why it didn’t come up when I was looking for flights unless it was already fully booked, full to bursting with happy geochemists off conferencing). After arrival in Rome airport it was always going to be tight getting to the Florence train – I’d left myself 2 hours – and unfortunately it was too tight. The trains from the airport to my station in Rome were every 30 minutes, not every 15 minute as I’d read and what is more my train was 20 minutes late. In consequence I missed the Florence train by 5 minutes. Still it wasn’t like the 2 km sprint I once had to do in a Mexican airport to catch a connection and the matter was soon resolved by the purchase of a ticket for the next train. To prove that all clouds have a silver lining, I now had time to get something to eat in Rome.

I’m now on the train to Florence, due to arrive 2217. The hotel is near the station. Nonetheless it has been a long day and I’m looking forward to a lie in tomorrow before exploring Florence and then registering at the conference later in the day.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Confessions of a conference attendee

Day 1: 23rd August

I left York at 6 pm en route to the 2013 Goldschmidt International Geochemistry conference in Florence via London Heathrow tomorrow morning and flight to Rome, changing in Paris and a train ride to Florence. I should always remember that I am lucky to have a job with these opportunities to travel. The flights and train rides are an excellent opportunity to catch up on reading and reviewing papers and proposals if nothing else.
What should be an excellent blogging opportunity has been rendered slightly less exciting as my wife has the camera in Edinburgh. Therefore I’ll add photos retrospectively.
The lack of a camera is particularly disappointing tonight as I am staying in the architectural splendour of the Heathrow Central Travel Lodge “Welcome to the best Travel Lodge” said the receptionist, though at least she had a smile on her face. I shall compare the architecture with great interest to that on offer in Florence tomorrow!