The American Chemical Society organizes two meetings each year, bringing together chemists from all across the world to discuss the latest and greatest results in a broad range of fields. To impose some order on the throng of about 15,000 participants (!), the meetings are split into divisions and subdivisions. The Division of Physical Chemistry recently added a subdivision on astrochemistry, leading to our very own symposium inside the 2014 Spring Meeting of the ACS in Dallas, Texas.
We kicked off, rather ridiculously, at 8:30am on Sunday morning. My own talk on episodic accretion was Sunday at 11:20am, by which point everyone was at least awake, though perhaps not yet entirely at peace with losing a precious weekend day. The astrochemistry schedule continued for the rest of the day, all of Monday and Wednesday, and Thursday morning, plus a poster session Wednesday evening. Tuesday was reserved for a set of plenary awards talks for the entire Division of Physical Chemistry.
Highlights for me included several talks by long-time friends and collaborators like Ted Bergin (my current boss), Karin Öberg (fellow Leiden graduate), and Herma Cuppen (another ex-Leidenite). Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto entertained the audience with stories of before and after his discovery of fullerenes (“buckyballs”) and Lucy Ziurys stole the show on the last day with a video of the transport of a 12-meter or 40-foot telescope from Socorro, New Mexico to Kitt Peak, Arizona.
Wacky moments there were also, and none wackier than the question from a young attendee (based on age and demeanor, I’m guessing he was a grad student) after a talk on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in interstellar space. It went something like this: “Earth is getting very full. What do we have to do to make Mars habitable, so that we can send some of our great-great-grandchildren there?” That’s the type of stuff I’ve come to expect at public lectures, not at professional meetings.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the conference came during the poster session. After I was done with the astrochemistry posters, I wandered off into the rest of the physical chemistry section to see if anything would pique my interest. I was scanning poster titles and did a double take on this one: “Bird eggs, bodies, and bombs – predicting visible spectra and color with Gaussian and Excel.” Bird eggs, bodies, and bombs were not what I was expecting to find on a physical chemistry poster.
Now, as it turned out, the poster wasn’t about any of those three items at all. It was about a fairly simple and straightforward method to predict the colors of chemical compounds using standard software (Gaussian is a popular computational chemistry modeling package), suitable for use in a classroom. The three Bs were merely some examples to which this technique had been applied, but did not feature heavily in the poster. The lead author, Darren Williams from Sam Houston State University, did an excellent job explaining his research, keeping things short and simple at first, and going into more detail only when he recognized I wanted more detail. Too many poster presenters go into the nitty gritty of their work way too soon. Don’t! Paint the broad strokes first, deliver the key message right from the get-go, and allow the response of your visitor to guide you into detail from there. Dr. Williams got it just right. If I had a poster prize to award, he’d receive it.
As for the location, I have to say that Dallas is a bit of a dump. Like so many American cities, the downtown area is a massive business district, with skyscrapers so tall and numerous that the sun never reaches down to street level. Pedestrians are almost non-existent outside of lunch hour, when the work force heads out to the overpriced restaurants scattered among the office buildings. If this is the pinnacle of modern life, count me out.