There are roughly 15,000 professional astronomers* in the world. Of them, roughly 7,000 are in the United States. Of those, over 2,700 of them made an appearance at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
Needless to say, the meetings are a pretty big deal. Where else can you put a face to all the names who write the papers you read? Where else can you go out to dinner with old friends and colleagues who are at institutions scattered around the country? Where else can you find yourself standing next to a Nobel Prize winner, and strike up a conversation? (note to self: practice elevator pitch)
I went to last week’s meeting of the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. If you’ve ever been to a science fiction convention like ComiCon or DragonCon, it’s actually fairly similar in organization: Four days of large invited talks, smaller simultaneous themed talk sessions full of contributed talks, and a hall of exhibitors and scientific posters (which are sometimes preferred over a talk – the contributed talks are only 5 minutes long, and in rooms that can generally only fit about 30 people). It was, as usual, an incredible experience, and as usual, it was very different from al the previous meetings I went to.
The first time I went, I was an undergraduate and merely stood around to soak up the atmosphere of the place. Subsequent times I’ve tried to see all the talks, and other times I’ve tried to see as many posters as possible. This time it was all about meeting people, and I basically used my poster as a springboard to discussing science with other interested parties (and their posters to engage with them about what they’re up to).
I still saw a few of the talks. American Astronomical Society meetings are great sources of information about the latest and greatest findings outside actual field of research. For instance, I now know, courtesy of a fascinating talk by Max Tegmark, that the inflation of the universe (which seems to be a fact) implies the existence of parallel universes – not the ones where everyone is evil and has beards, though; these are regions of space more than 13.7 billion light years away, which means light from them hasn’t reached us yet, and more specifically from regions that may still be inflating faster than light, so we may NEVER actually see them.
In a way, it’s comforting to know these meetings are there. It’s a great forum for all kinds of things. It just tends to wear you down after four days… but it’s worth it, once a year, to go and re-energize yourself for your science. I’ll hopefully have the financial support to go again next year.
*I’m not entirely sure what constitutes a professional astronomer. It encompasses at minimum people whose job involves research, teaching, instrument development, telescope support, software development, curriculum development, aerospace engineers… And not everyone at the meetings are professionals; there are students and amateurs too.