Sunday, July 12, 2020

Goldschmidt Meeting 2003: Taking my son (age 11) to Japan

Evan and Karen Rumble with Evan's Japanese bike purchased at the Goldschmidt


“You never take me anywhere,” he said.

 

My 11-year-old son Evan had already been to Australia on two 6-week-long field trips and to Hawaii, California, and Florida on multiple adventures. He’d obviously been taken plenty of places but Japan was special. In 2003, I was elected as a Fellow of the Geochemical Society. The award was to be presented at the Goldschmidt meeting in Kurashiki, Japan, a smaller city of only 500,000 people south of Tokyo.

 

At first I said no to his request to come along, but relented fairly quickly. I’d never traveled to Asia before, unlike most of my Geophysical Lab colleagues. In retrospect, earth science in Asia was a male-dominated culture then (and perhaps now?), and I’d never been invited. Usually I saved my precious research dollars on doing fieldwork rather than spending funds on conferences. This time was different.

 

My geochemist colleague Bjorn Mysen was enthusiastic about my going. Bjorn spent a substantial part of every year in Japan doing research and visiting colleagues. He helped out with my flights and told me how to recognize women’s rest rooms from men’s—watch to see who goes in before you do. I submitted an abstract to present a talk on mangrove isotope biogeochemistry, booked a hotel room, and got permission from Evan’s 6th grade teachers for him to miss school for a week.

 

Our flights were uneventful. We arrived in Osaka airport tired but glad to arrive on this mother-son adventure. After a quick train ride to Kurashiki, we checked into our small hotel room in the center of the city. We came a day or so early to get adjusted to jet lag and see the sights before the meeting started. I let Evan choose what he wanted to do that next day, and he quickly suggested a trip to a Japanese amusement park called Tivoli Park, designed to mimic a Danish park in Copenhagen.

 

Evan had been to Disneyworld in Florida and 6 Flags in Maryland where we lived. As a typical 6th grader he loved fast rides, the wilder the better. Tivoli Park was an example of our adventures to come that week—it was slow, polite, and clean. I recall the unusually polite attendants who strapped us into the roller coasters and other rides. On paddleboats, we circled around the park, waved at by perky attendants atop stations along the way. It was the quietest park we’d ever been to.

 

MacDonald's was a treat

As a blue-eyed, blonde youngster, Evan was a rarity in Kurashiki. We joined geochemistry colleagues for dinner each evening. While the adults drank sake and large bottles of beer, Evan was treated with endless bottles of Coca Cola, usually for free! The wait staff pampered him with snacks, sometimes patting him on the head and smiling. He was having a ball. One evening, Evan ordered unagi (Japanese for eel) on the urging of Doug Rumble, my Geophysical Lab colleague. I was proud that Evan was brave enough to eat eel—a slimy, boney treat. I watched as he stuffed his mouth with rice, took a small bite of unagi, quickly swallowing it. The next morning when I told him it was great to see him eat eel, he replied, “I didn’t eat eel. That was unagi.” A lesson was learned about food in foreign countries.

 

During the day, Evan spent time with Doug’s wife Karen. They toured the historic canal district and local shops. On the first day of the conference, Evan purchased a foldable black and white bicycle (!) called the Whale, that he then rode around the city as a seasoned traveler. Essentially, he was on his own and loving it.  

 

Red bean ice cream sunday

On afternoon, he attended the session that I was giving my paper in. There were about 100 geochemists attending with a dozen 15-minute talks. Afterwards, Evan said, “That’s not what I expected.”

 

“What did you expect?” I asked.

 

“I thought people sat in a big room and took turns raising their hands, then standing up to speak. I didn’t know you’d be the only one in the front of the room.”

 

Imagine an auditorium of 1,000 geochemists. John Eiler of Caltech raises his hand. He’s called on and stands. At over 6 feet tall, he gives his opinion on isotope fractionation for 3 minutes, then sits down. There is a brief pause, then Wolfram Meier-Augenstein raises his hand. The audience settles into their seats awaiting a 10-minute lecture on best isotope practices. This is followed by Big John Hayes’ booming voice—“John Hayes, Woods Hole” and his detailed explanation of what isotope fractionation really means. The graduate students would be whispering to each other and taking notes. Finally, a brave woman raises her hand and simply tells what the others mean by “isotope fractionation.” Did anyone listen? And on it goes.

 

Becoming a "Fellow" 2003

Fortunately, for all of us in science, scientific discourse doesn’t happen that way too often. In 2003, I was only the 3rd woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Geochemical Society following Miriam Kastner and Alex Navrotsky. After 25 years at a top institution in earth science, I was finally recognized. My son was there to see the whole thing. I couldn’t have been happier. Today there are 40 women Fellows out of 330 some total Fellows—about 12%.

 

In 2003, the Geochemical Buzz was all about Non-mass dependent isotope fractionation. For those completely out of the science loop, isotopes (elements with different numbers of neutrons and thus different masses) usually behave a certain way in chemical reactions. Heavier isotopes react more slowly; the opposite for the lighter isotopes of a given element like carbon. Sometimes, rarely, isotopes behave without any regard to their mass, but more on the structure of their electrons. Sulfur isotopes of the non-mass dependent flavor were the rage then with many of my colleagues taking a leadership role in the science. Astrobiology was also hot stuff—and I was squarely in the middle of that field of study.

 

On our day off mid-week of the conference, Evan and I took the Shinkansen train to Hiroshima. I wanted him to see and understand the devastation of nuclear war first hand. We made our way to the Peace Park, ground zero of the atomic bomb dropped on August 6, 1945 killing 80,000 people. Only the ruins of an astronomical observatory remain. The park was filled with Japanese school children gaily running around midst green lawns and luscious plantings, nothing like the mayhem 58 years prior. We toured the museum there using headphones with English descriptions of what happened that day. Midway through the museum, we were both in tears and left feeling overwhelmingly sad. Never again! I wanted Evan to realize. Another much more important lesson learned.

 

Hiroshima, site of atomic bombing 1945

We ended our trip to Hiroshima with a more upbeat experience—catching a baseball game with the local Hiroshima Carp. An enterprising young man who was practicing his English skills helped us get front row seats. We ate the best ballpark food ever—Udon noodle soup loaded with spicy beef. It’s rich flavors are memorable to this day.

 

Hiroshima Carp baseball game--a lighter experience

We ended the conference week with a banquet arranged by then postdoc Shuhei Ono, at an authentic Japanese restaurant. Dish after dish of unusual food came to our table, where we enjoyed everything--even those dishes that defied description. Evan was promised a delicious dessert, which turned out to be a pasty, half-sweet pudding-like substance. To this day, we don’t know what it was.

 

What a group! Bruce Runnegar, Mark Fries, Bjorn Mysen, Karlis Muhlenbachs, Huiming Bao, Uwe Weichert, Doug, Kate Freeman, Joel Savarino, Shuhei Ono, Jim Lyons, Boz Wing, James Farquhar, Jan and Bettina Toporski, Doug and Karen Rumble, Evan and me, and Yushiro Ueno, plus a couple more astrobiologists

We schlepped Evan’s bicycle to the airport where a gate attendant in high heels and pantyhose constructed a special package out of cardboard and duct tape—service we’d never see in the States.

 

We still have that bike—painted green now, and the memories of that trip bring back big smiles. All in all a fabulous week.

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