Don's Diary

September 15, 1995

THURSDAY. I am in Berlin for the 14th Congress of the International Union for Quaternary Research, always called Inqua.

I am a bit worried about this conference, the circulars and registration materials went out very late and there is a feeling that all is not well. I register and collect my carrier-bag of paper; it is a sponsored carrier-bag with a very handsome publisher's logo on it (I can remember when conference bags had the conference logo but that suddenly seems a long time ago).

It is the reception in the evening. It is still a very hot day, and the reception is in the botanical gardens - but it is held in a glasshouse and is almost unbearable. One small glass of beer and a piece of dry bread. My apprehension grows stronger.

SATURDAY. Another very hot day. A full day of papers but at the conference site the main cafeteria is closed, so you can talk but not eat.

I try for a soft drink from the machine, but it is broken. I am forced over to the hot drinks machine. I punch in the code for the coolest milkiest coffee - it delivers hot cocoa. It is not a good day. I talk to a distinguished Canadian delegate. He claims to have attempted to attend 30 presentations, and not one has been as advertised. The "no-show" problem has struck and the flimsy organisation is collapsing.

But it is the first Loess Commission business meeting in the evening and that cheers me up. About 50 people attend which is encouraging. Inqua wants the commissions to turn to a more project-orientated approach to quaternary research so we discuss possible projects, which our widely dispersed membership can cooperate on.

The great quaternary theme at the moment is climate change and there is no doubt that loess deposits give a good indication of climate change over the past two million years; this will be the dominant theme for the next few years.

Some of the thick Chinese loess deposits appear to contain up to 40 buried soil layers; this indicates 40 climatic cycles in about two million years, so the cycle time is down to around 50,000 years.

MONDAY. This is the main day at the conference. For most of the day it is the fifth Drumlin symposium, organised by the Glacial Deposits Commission. You would not think there was that much to be said about drumlins (low rounded hills found in glaciated landscapes) but the enthusiasts keep meeting, and keep talking.

The golf-ball effect sounds interesting and the idea that self-organising criticality is observed in a drumlin field is distinctly challenging.

When the Drumlin symposium ends the "Loess in Europe" symposium begins. We are trying to track down the sheets of the Loess Map of Europe. With walls coming down and much general chaos across central Europe most of the mapping sheets have been mislaid.

The old East German Cartographic Institute at Potsdam had nominal charge of the material, but somehow valuable results have been lost. We set about finding them, but it could be a long trek.

WEDNESDAY. I went to the applied quaternary sessions. Some good work on loess collapse, some interesting presentations from Slovakia, lots of cracked houses near Bratislava, some elegant theoretical studies from Nottingham Trent, and some flyers for a new book on collapsing soils. I glance at the price, it is Pounds 130, it looks a great book but I don't think our library will be keen to buy it.

In the evening it is the Congress dinner. We eat on a boat as it sails the Wannsee. It is an amazingly expensive dinner and no drinks are provided. We are taken to the embarkation point by bus but at the end of the cruise, late in the evening, we are all dumped at the lakeside and left to find our own ways home.

My apprehensions have turned out to be fully justified, we are witnessing a graphic demonstration of how not to run a conference. Also the idea of any part of our "conference" being at Wannsee makes me uneasy.

SATURDAY. Going home day. I have a last conversation with the leading Canadian drumlin expert. He looks pleased to be leaving. I pull a few pages out of the abstracts volume and leave the rest in the wastepaper basket. Inqua has a new president, who has a difficult task ahead.

We have a site for the next Inqua Congress in 1999, we are going to Durban in South Africa. This seems to me a wonderful choice, the quaternary of Africa is fascinating but neglected and there are some interesting collapsing sands in the far south, and maybe some loess on Mount Kenya.

But I remember the 13th congress in Beijing when we all blithely celebrated the prospect of the 14th congress in Berlin. I think we were in Berlin to celebrate reunification, maybe some priorities got misdirected.

We might be going to South Africa to celebrate democracy, obviously a good thing but I hope it does not interfere with the timing of the paper presentations.

Ian Smalley, Professor of applied geomorphology at Leicester University.

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