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EarthSky reports from the AAAS meeting in San Diego

This meeting consists of scientific talks – hundreds of them, by some of the world’s leading scientists – with many going on simultaneously for the next several days.

Thursday marked the start of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This organization calls itself “the world’s largest general scientific society,” and, if you could attend this gigantic meeting – held this year in San Diego – you’d find that easy to believe.

The image at the top of this post is an illustration of a San Diego beach. EarthSky came out to San Diego a few days before the AAAS conference started this week, to shoot video of ocean scientists. More on that in a future post. This AAAS science conference in San Diego is far from the beach, however. It consists of scientific talks – hundreds of them, by some of the world’s leading scientists – with many going on simultaneously for the next several days. You can read news from the meeting here.

This afternoon, I took in a press conference on nuclear downsizing and verification, which was about how we can get rid of nuclear weapons, and create safeguards against nuclear proliferation. The American Physical Society recently released a report on the technical steps needed to “downsize” worldwide nuclear arsenal. One of those steps involves the field of nuclear forensics – also referred to as nuclear archeology – to find out if countries are participating in illegal nuclear activities, and exactly where and what is going on.

I spoke with Dr. Ian Hutcheon, a physicist who analyzes possible nuclear material at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. His lab goes to work when either the International Atomic Energy Agency inspects a nuclear facility, or when suspicious material gets intercepted at a national border. Dr. Hutcheon explained that it can be very difficult to recognize the chemical signature of illegal nuclear activity. For example, he said, you can find uranium in a handful of soil. But with state-of-the-art technology, he can identify a nuclear fingerprint – similar to a human fingerprint – that can trace nuclear material back to the facility where it was made. Dr. Hutcheon said this ability serves as a deterrent to people thinking about participating in illegal nuclear activities. And, it’s some pretty cool science.

All considered, things were relatively quiet today inside the San Diego Convention Center. The conference really gets going on Friday.

I also registered in the press area, by the way, which over the next few days will become a hive of news generated from the conference. Whenever you see “SAN DIEGO, California -“ below the headline of a science article this week, know that it came from one of dozens of hunched-over, deadline-pressed journalists sitting in the back of the convention center in a room full of computers.

For most of the journalists, the lifeline to the science conference are the specially held press conferences, which place nearly every hour from morning until evening.

I’m skipping most of the press conferences this year, though. In the next three days, on behalf of EarthSky, I’ll be interviewing scientists about the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, geoengineering, stem cell research, the world’s energy future, and much more. We’ll bring these stories to you in podcast form over the coming weeks.

As an Austin resident, I like to think of the AAAS as the South by Southwest (SXSW) of science – an intense and sprawling, multi-day celebration of all things scientific.

Stimulating weekend ahead at the annual AAAS meeting!

Lindsay Patterson

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