Large international science conferences are extraordinary events. For a week at a time, scientists emerge from their offices and laboratories and join a throng of thousands, negotiating their way through tens of thousands of presentations across multiple parallel sessions. For many of those attending, the scale of the event is less important, though, than the opportunity the meeting presents for smaller clusters of researchers to come together to talk about problems of common interest. This week, the European Geosciences Union General Assembly has been taking place in Vienna; a city that seems to me at least to have one of the best integrated public transport systems in the world. With 13,500 abstracts and 11,000 delegates this year, this is one of the major annual Geoscience meetings worldwide, and it attracts people from across the world. This week, I was one of the convenors of a specialist session on volcanic ash; a session that in the end began in the depths of the volcanic conduit, and ended with the spread of volcanic through the atmosphere. This meeting within-a-conference worked really well: the 45 presentations brought together a mix of specialists from disciplinary backgrounds as diverse as applied mathematics, atmospheric physics, meteorology, geophysics and volcanology and from universities, government agencies and volcano observatories for a whole day of discussion.
This sort of forum offers both a very quick way to ‘catch up’ in areas where one might already be a specialist; and to fill in important gaps in knowledge and understanding in other areas. More importantly, it allows people to network; to gain a keener understanding of ‘how things work’, and of the underlying assumptions and other constraints that influence the way that the science is developing. In my own session, the overwhelming challenges ultimately relate to two themes: scale or size, and accessibility. Size, because both in the volcanic conduit and in the atmosphere, the properties and behaviour both of the magma and of the ash cloud relate intimately to the nature, properties and behaviour of materials at the micron or sub-micron scale. Accessibility, because neither the flowing magma within the conduit nor the transient volcanic ash cloud are particularly easy to sample directly while ‘live’. Instead, researchers rely on using remote-sensing measurements (e.g. seismicity, ground- or satellite-based 0bservations) to gather real-time data, along with with simulation (experimental and computational), and finally inference and validation from analysis of eruptive products, where any are preserved, in order to piece together a story. It would be hard to bring together a similarly diverse group of specialists in a forum other than a large conference without considerable effort, which is perhaps one explanation of why the General Assembly format is both attractive and successful.