Conference report from a non-expert: Geochemistry


Last week I went to the Goldschmidt conference, which is a convergence of geochemists. I’m not a geochemist. I’m not even an ecosystem ecologist (though I’ve pretended to be one a few times). I was there to speak about how insects respond to the legacy of geologic history in a rainforest, and to share a bit about how animals may affect long-term nutrient cycles. In short, to remind them that animals might, just maybe, actually matter.

I learned a heck of a lot. Here are a bunch of stray observations and ideas that occurred to me throughout the meeting.

  • As far as I can tell from this conference, if it were not for the study of isotope ratios, we would know absolutely nothing about the earth of the Earth. There’s a scene from Being John Malkovich in which all characters just say, “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.” This meeting felt similar: “isotope, isotope, isotope, isotope.”

  • A lot of geochemistry is about developing and assuring the validity of methods. It all comes down to the accuracy and reliability of methods. I’d say that the vast majority of the talks and posters that I saw were about methods.

  • A not-uncommon conversation-starter: “What machine do you have?”

  • Geochemists are beardier than ecologists. But perhaps less scruffy.

  • When conference registration costs about what I imagine you could get for a kidney on the black market, you get what you pay for. Very well organized, copious snacks of the non-cheap variety (including fresh raspberries and blackberries) and always fresh fruit available, constant coffee, and lots of drink tickets for the poster sessions. Which serve good beer. (Then again, the Entomology meeting is only one hundred bucks cheaper or so, and they don’t have any of that). And the students who volunteer not only get free registration, they also get paid!

  • I’m used to ecologists battling for fame and status by being the champion of an Important Theory. At least from the view of an outsider, I didn’t see this so much of it in Geochemistry. People weren’t selling theories, they were selling methods. (Then, I was told by insiders, once a method is unassailable, then it can be used to make all kinds of claims.) There still are crazy politics and personal agendas, but from my perspective, this meeting seemed a little closer to the false stereotype of the careful and passionless scientist.

  • These folks are, on average, fun and laid back.

  • Geochemistry has the same ethnic diversity problem as the fields of science with which I am familiar. And maybe a little worse.

  • I was surprised to not see a super-duper emphasis on over-fancy statistics. There was plenty of modeling, and of course a well-reasoned treatment of variance and sampling errors. The approaches to stats were definitely not shoddy, but lacking the statistical machismo that I’ve grown accustomed to among ecologists. I walked away from the meeting with even greater confidence in our stated understanding of the historical chemical conditions on the planet.

  • When insect abundance increases in response to nutrient availability, then this is best summarized by saying that insects are “indicators” of nutrients. (To me, that’s a little bit like saying that a delicious meal home-cooked meal is an indicator of a quality grocery store.)

  • I suspect it’s harder to be a geochemist at a smaller institution than it is to be an ecologist. Geochemistry seems to always require one or more expensive machines that require constant love and maintenance. (This machine apparently measures isotopes of some kind, in some way.) So, you first need the cash to have the machine, and then you also need to keep a full-time lab tech. Without a tech, then faculty end up being mechanics rather than manuscript and grant machines. I suppose fancy private colleges can keep machines running if you’re blessed with a good technician.

  • You’d think that geochemists get to tramp all over the world for fieldwork. But from what I could tell, a bunch of people work locally. Moreover, a bunch of people are relying on samples collected by others. There is plenty of fieldwork; I talked to a grad student whose thesis is about dating volcanos and glacial periods in Iceland. I met a really cool guy who’ll be spending time working in super-remote Siberia. And people who go scuba-diving on coral reefs. But, it seems like a lot of it is in the lab, based on core samples that someone sends to you in the mail.

  • Every person was extremely generous with their time in explaining very basic things to me. There were many terms and acronyms that they knew that I didn’t, and basic mechanisms or analyses that I hadn’t seen before. And big theories too. Bigwigs, postdocs and grad students all were both interested in sharing with me and took their time to make sure that I really understood what they were doing. I had the opportunity to ask a bunch of questions, and I did far more listening than asking. It was refreshing that this non-specialist was not only accepted, but also welcome, at the conference.

  • What a bummer that it was in Sacramento this year. Vienna would have been nicer.

  • I met some folks at the meeting who I know internet-knew through this site, and they were really cool. I also failed to cross paths with some people, too, since I was only there for a short time. And since there are presumably a few geochemists reading this now, they’re well prepared to correct my misconceptions, I hope!

8 thoughts on “Conference report from a non-expert: Geochemistry

  1. Very interesting anthropological observations. Reminds me of the one time I went to AGU (American Geophysical Union). I definitely noticed the “less scruffy” too – I saw more suits at one AGU than I have at 10 years of ESA.(and that is probably still an understatement). Interesting observation too about method focus. While ecologists get obsessed with computer methods (phylo-community ecology, etc) sometimes I think we’d be better off if we got more obsessed with basic field-based measurement methods (meaning truly novel methods to measure larger scales, different organisms, etc, not just arguing over existing sampling methods). And for sure I agree about the lack of statistical machismo. I think statistical machismo is in all seriousness a form of posturing for sciences that feel like they’re “soft” and found primarily in ecology, psychology, economics, and some of the other social sciences. One other thing I noticed at AGU was how far geoscience is ahead of ecology in informatics – massive discipline wide efforts to assemble and organize huge datasets.

    Now it makes me wonder what a geoscientist attending ecology meetings would write!

  2. This is perceptive. I think of myself as a geochemist, although many “classical” geochemists don’t necessarily agree. Much of this is down to the fact that throughout my career I’ve lacked access to Fancy Isotope-Measuring Machines.

  3. Loved your point about statistics. I have noticed much less emphasis on stats in geology than other disciplines I’ve been exposed to, especially bio/ecology. Great post and it is interesting to get a non-geochemists perspective on the field (I am an isotope geochemist).

  4. Great post, definitely true about isotopes, those deep-time data points are invaluable for those questions that we have next to no other data sources for. Hopefully one day that’ll change, but for now, isotope isotope isotope isotope isotope. I agree with Matt about statistics too, coming from a physics background, sometimes I get frustrated with the lack of quantitative science at conferences like these, I was glad to see the depth and breadth of stats and stat analysis! Thanks for your post, hopefully one day we’ll meet off of the internet!

  5. Great to meet you at the conference! Next year is in Prague! This was only my second time attending the meeting in the US but my 5th overall. I’ve found the European conferences to be much better for food and, of course, fun location. On the other hand, the wireless often is spotty in Europe though that’s certainly worth the trade off!

    I think part of the reason for less stats is the expense (in time/money) for obtaining each individual data point when isotopes are involved (though some of the types of isotopic analyses are getting faster). Also, collection of core samples is time consuming.

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