Why Climate Change is Not the Right Band Wagon for Science: Use Satellite TV

godMost scientists would say that climate change is real. The Earth has lots of past proof that climate changes all the time. So much so, that anyone (scientist or not) can proclaim it true, because it is easier to prove than the existence of some all-knowing being.

The truth is that most people on Earth today would do just the opposite, though. They’d tell the scientists that they believe in God, but not climate change. Sorry Carl Sagan. You got nothing on the Pope.

It’s a beautiful spring day after a very long winter. Guess what?  That is empirical, verifiable proof that climate change occurs on a seasonal time scale at temperate latitudes. No one’s denying that. You can believe in God or not. Doesn’t matter on that one.  Climate change is real. Amen.

Now for a harder part. Can I, as a scientist or non-scientist, reliably predict that there will be a summer this year, meaning that it will get hotter here and that it will likely not snow in July? Probably can. As any 4th grader can tell you, the Earth tilts toward the sun in summer, and more sunlight hits the temperate zone making it hotter. But guess what? An enormous event may alter the tilt of the Earth, the sun might explode, or an alien race might destroy the Earth to make a highway (see the wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).  There is a minuscule probability that summer won’t come this year.

Now for an even harder part. Can I predict that winter next year will make a lot of snow? If I am a climatologist, I run lots of sophisticated models on clustered computers, I look at sunspots, the brightness of the sun, the heat trapped in the oceans, and other stuff, and I make a prediction. Any climatologist will tell you that the predictability isn’t that great.  It is still better than betting that an alien highway will be built…but to a society accustomed to good cell phone service, a reliable meal, and gas at every highway exit, they’re not that impressed.

Now, jump on the climate change bandwagon. We know that carbon dioxide concentrations are being pumped into the atmosphere at alarming rates. We know that in the distant past, there was a nice correlation between carbon dioxide concentration and atmospheric temperature. But we don’t have a causal relationship that’s nearly as reliable as a tilting Earth and the seasons. And that sucks.  But that’s the way it is.

There were lots of other things different on Earth when carbon dioxide levels where high and Earth’s temperatures were undeniably hotter.  Dinosaurs. Big, chunky continents were located in different places (e.g., near the equator). Lots of brachiopods were in the ocean. And really early on, nothing was alive on land.

So, we scientists living in this warm period in between ice ages flip out and tell society that it is going to get hotter on Earth and we show that, yes indeed, over the past few decades, we’ve had some scorchers and expect everyone to come outside and demand to have their lights turned off because we still rely mostly on fossil fuels and we don’t have the will to put that messy carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen compounds somewhere out of the way.

But it was really cold this winter in North America and spring came again. So, scientists, we’re not that convinced, society says. Some of us do worry about that Arctic sea ice. But that may just be a fluke and it will come back next year.

The reality is, and always will be, that humans are empirical, analog creatures responding to immediate stimuli in the environment.

None of this worrying about that future generation bull.

That’s not how 99% of us roll evolutionarily.

And that’s ok.

But when it comes to policy and stewardship of our resources and the future of our planet, there are clever ways to solve the looming problems, whether rising carbon dioxide concentrations are going to be really that damaging with the current configuration of oceans and continents on the planet.

To scientists:

First and foremost.  Get off the bandwagon. Admit that, yes, climate change is normal on Earth. But until you can convince Joe Public what the weather will really be like next season (which you can’t), don’t expect them to trust you much about predicting temperature on Earth in the next 50 years.

Second, my dearest colleagues. Compromise. Getting off fossil fuels is going to be hard. Just saying to society that we need to “pull the band aid and damn the economic consequences” is not going to work.  Give society the solutions for energy conservation, carbon sequestration and efficient energy storage/transmissions with realistic promises and economic realism (i.e., work with economists before you go down the path of discovery NOT LATER).

Third.  Learn acceptance.  Look at what we’ve already done to the environment with habitat fragmentation, invasive species, complete alteration of almost all our watersheds, pollution, etc. Prioritize climate change in the context of all the other horrific calamities facing us today and accept that climate change is coming, like it or not. It will be colder or hotter in some places. Weather will likely be less predictable.  But there will still be seasons.  That’s about all we can really say for now to our people, unless the aliens get their highway.

To society:

Be patient with us. We are smart but not very good at teaching you about what we learn.

Also, realize that science is a messy, subjective business. We don’t get it right every time. We make lots of mistakes.

Give us money. Believe it or not, we do make your lives better.  Had polio lately?  Like your satellite TV? How about that good gas mileage on your hybrid? Or that new hip replacement? Did you have a baby when you shouldn’t have been able to? All of this good stuff was funded by tax payer dollars that were eventually commercialized for your pleasure and longevity. If you cut us off, it will be back to the Flintstones for you.

And who will help develop that next generation of air conditioning when it gets really hot outside?

 

Interdisciplinary Burnout

 

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* As always, these posts represent my views and not necessarily those of my employer.

I hosted an Interdisciplinary Forum here at SIU the other day. It was probably the 10 or 11th interdisciplinary event on campus in the past year and, quite frankly, it was sparsely attended. I know, people are busy and distracted here at SIU, but really, I could use a little guidance about what we can do to improve interactions on this campus and make this place better than it already is. That’s the job I have right now.

I get it.  We academics are all burned out on the interdisciplinary rhetoric. Everyone knows what interdisciplinary means, right? So, why attend yet another seminar on the topic?

Here’s why. We are still not interdisciplinary in our approaches.

To those who don’t really know what interdisciplinary means (including me), let me provide my very clunky view of what interdisciplinary isn’t.  All universities are organized in some shape or fashion into disciplinary units, by the very necessity of administration. You have to have some method to the madness of hiring people, training students, organizing classes, and doling out money. Some faculty view the administration as a group of people doing everything they can to keep them from being free and creative.  But the alternative is complete chaos, loss of students, and eventual loss of accreditation.  Structure is stability, whether that makes you happy or not.

Most universities were built on a disciplinary focus….for better or worse.

Here’s the rub.  Or wicked problem, as some of my colleagues call it.

In my view, a discipline is a falsely defined administrative and intellectual structure that is based loosely on the self organization of science, arts, humanities, and applied arts as a response to the social actions of academics, the needs/wants of society, the state of knowledge of the time, and the administrative structure of the university.  Funding agencies like NSF say they want interdisciplinary approaches…but look at their structure.  At their heart, they are divided by disciplines like everyone else.

In the current world, we are not really “university”.  Rather, we funnel our students into disciplines as quickly as possible so that they find themselves in a college and department that will provide them with a skill that should benefit them through life. That ain’t universal.

Of course, there are the core courses that provide our students with a liberal smattering of experiences.  And if students want to bump around from major to major across disciplines, that usually means more classes, more credit hours, more years in school, and unfortunately more debt.

How can this be? As society in the US refuses to fund higher education, it (i.e., the politicians, voters, and tax payers) forces universities to be less flexible and even more rigid.  We need to push students through quickly, with as few credit hours (and debt) as possible. Learning is not efficient.  Yet, universities are being forced more and more to be efficient as possible, which means cordoning off resources and killing programs that are not efficient enough (e.g., not producing enough students to justify costs).

Now that you know my view of disciplinary approaches, what is interdisciplinary? As with all things, it lies in the eyes of the beholder.  Within some colleges, a colleague working on one facet of a problem of a discipline interacting with another colleague working on another facet, consider themselves interdisciplinary.  To illustrate, a computational chemist interacting with a biochemist might be considered interdisciplinary to some.

At the other end of the spectrum, a chemist working with someone in art design to develop a work of art to explore how bonds change in molecules with temperature is interdisciplinary.

There are about a zillion ways to define this.  Intradisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, etc. The way I look at it is that we are trying to create opportunities to create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts – an emergent property or a transformative experience as some call it.

Society wants both things.  It wants universities to run on fumes and train people quickly in a very specific way.  But it also wants the next big idea that will save humanity, make money, improve the human condition, enrich lives, and help the environment, among many things.

Well, society, you can’t have your cake unless you are willing to spend the money on baking supplies.

Enough ranting for now.

 

Can I Brag?

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How do you self promote without sounding like a horse’s butt? This is particularly problematic when you are trying to get a job or trying to keep a job. During an interview or evaluation, you want to sound humble, but is this going to get you hired or retained?  On the other hand, if you come across acting like you are some kind of prophet, then people will hate you.  Sounding nervous or unprepared doesn’t help much.  And you don’t want to come across as too eager or too detached.

I have no answer about how to balance these things. There are days that I need to check Dr. Ego at the door.  Other days, there are people lined up to do it for me. Most of the time, I just want to hide out.  It’s so hard trying to appear competent when all you want to do is walk around in your underwear and eat ramen noodles while watching cooking shows all day.

In this competitive world, self promotion is often a matter of survival, whether you like it or not.

You want your book published?  You better be ready to say that you have the best novel out there.

Need venture capital for a business? Sales, sales, sales.

Want to be a tenured university professor?  It gets extra weird.  You must bathe in gratuitous self promotion at certain times.  Want people to buy your text book?  Self promote.  Give you grant money?  Self promote.  TED talk?  Self promote. Get students to come to your class and like you?  Self promote.  It becomes particularly prevalent  while writing your dossier narratives for tenure and promotion.  You pen them in third person, as if you are talking about yourself.  Examples:  Garvey is the bees knees.  He rocks the house down.  And other cliches come to mind.  Yes, my second person, you are expected to really glob it on.  I, mean, for crying out loud, you are trying to convince a bunch of senior, accomplished self promoters to give you a job for life.  I suppose that is really important and all.  But really, are you that good?  No.  But I have never seen a dossier letter where someone says they suck at their job.

This applies to application letters for jobs anywhere.  No one will give you a serious look if you don’t say you are the best candidate for the position. How do you do this?  I guess you just say that you think you are the best candidate.  Of course, you need to provide examples and evidence. No one is going to believe that you are the best candidate if you don’t have the credentials. Now what happens if you have the best credentials but say that you really aren’t sure if you are the best out there but you’re pretty sure you’re okay?  Well, I’m sure you’re a humble person, but you probably won’t get an interview or the job.

Them’s the dumps.

I guess my advice is that the best self promoters know when to brag and when to appear humble. They read the social fabric before them and avoid turning people off while turning them on. I don’t think very many people are born with this skill.  It is learned and honed.

And if you do it right, you can move on to selling swampland for a living.  Or teaching at a university.

Sideline Judging of Science Fairs By A Parent: It Happened To Me

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We all know those parents who flip out at the soccer game, chewing out the referee for making a bad call on their kid.

These people suck. Get a life and check your perspective. You’re teaching your kid to be a bad loser.

So, my kid did his first science fair this year, which was my first as a parent.

He didn’t make it to the finals.

Most parents would shrug it off and say better luck next year. I thought I’d say that too. But the science fair judge wrote that my kid’s project needed a control.

WHAT?

My kid used a control, with plenty of replication. HE WAS ROBBED. Plain and simple.

To say that a scientist did not use a control in an experiment is the ultimate insult, like being falsely blamed for committing a personal foul and thrown out of the game.

So, I had two choices. I could have told my kid that sometimes life is unfair, he did the right thing, and that judges are only human. Or I could complain to his teacher and write a long e-mail to the poor man about why my kid did good science and NEEDED JUSTICE.

Guess, which course of action I chose?

I might be a crappy parent. But my kid is moving on to the finals.

 

 

 

Ooh That Smell – Wet Dog Blues

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Science is funny because there are some people who don’t care about the “why” but just the “is”.  Any of us who have been around dogs know that they smell something awful when they get wet, emanating the indescribable but universally understood “wet dog smell”.

There are many others like it.  “New car smell.”  “Fishy smell.”  “Dead animal smell.” “Rotten egg smell.”  “Cigar smell.”

You can just accept these smells, like a painter accepts colors on her palette.   It is blue.  Is it not?  Or you may ask why.  It is blue because the waves of  light returning to my retina are in the range of 400-450 nm long.  The answer’s pretty simple either way you look at it.

The same just doesn’t apply to smells.  Scientists still don’t know exactly why we smell things the way that we do.  The prevailing view is that our inner noses are lined with receptors by which volatile molecules attach. The receptors fire and our nerves say, “WET DOG” or “POOPY DIAPER”.  I read one book recently where some dude (can’t remember the name) believes that the vibrations of the molecules, not their shapes and electro-chemical properties, are actually responsible for smells.  That doesn’t seem to hold up to the science, but it is a neat idea.

The reason I’m writing this is because I asked my kids to wash the dogs today.  They did this, but also ended up washing the walls and floors of the bathroom.  I wasn’t too pleased.  As I mopped up, I pondered the pungent funk the pooches left behind and did what all good academics do – I fired up Wikipedia.

Wikipedia failed me.  And, in fact, damn it, nobody out there really knows what makes a good wet dog smell.  Here’s the deal.  Dogs, like us, make oils via glands on their skin.  Depending on what country you live in and how much you waste water by bathing, you might not notice that the oil you produce has its own funk – a wet human smell.  Anyway, dogs aren’t getting bathed every day, so the oil builds up on their skin and under their fur coat, giving them a really funky smell when you create the right conditions.

What makes the funk come to the punk?  The oils on the dogs are being consumed and transformed by bacteria and yeasts living on the dog’s hide.  Now, go to the kitchen and pour some vegetable oil into a glass of water.  As you probably know, the oil floats.  That’s what happens to all those skin oils when you give the dog a bath, they rise up to the surface of the fur, and some of them interact with oxygen in the air or simply evaporate, like the scent of a fine perfume.  Now airborne, these funky materials are sucked up into your nostrils and beam information to your brain, telling you that a wet dog is nearby.

Why do oils stink?  Well, they are really composed of complex acids (see my post here on this), which are biologically active materials and make a whole host of smells that interact with our noses.

When I sniff the wet dog that is currently on my lap, I pick up notes of sulfur and something darker, like garden dirt. The chemistry is a complete mystery to me.

Here’s the deal.  Chemists actually have sniffers that they attach to analytical equipment that can decode the chemical composition of smells.  Stick the stinky dog in one end of the machine, and out of the fancy gas chromatograph comes the answer.

I beseech my analytical chemist friends to find me an answer quickly, so that I can add it to Wikipedia as soon as possible.

Wet dog smell must have an answer.

Want Winter to Die?

Want Winter to Die?

20140315-163339.jpgWinter is not death, even though us North Americans might think this, because the season has been exceptionally brutal this year.

Yes, plant production plummets and lots of things are dormant. But if you look closely, the world is humming right along.

Deep in the soil under the ice and muck, moles and earthworms continue to churn things up, microbes still respire, and insect larvae sleep lightly. Snow pack may seem sterile, but mice, gophers, and patches of plants still go about their business in the space between the snow and the earth.

I remember being at the Grand Tetons one winter watching foxes hunt for gophers under the snow pack. The predators would stand quietly on the snow, listening underneath. When they heard a scurry, they’d hop up and punch their heads through the pack, yanking up a gopher. Over and over, the foxes would do this, never once missing. Life goes on, spectacularly, even in a frozen world. All is well, except for the gophers.

Lest you don’t yet believe me, the oceans around the poles are among the most productive open ocean areas in the world. Whales, fish, krill, zooplankton, and birds thrive there.

Ask any ice fisherman whether fish are inactive under the ice of a frozen lake. They might lie to keep you from their favorite fishing hole. But they know… the fish bite even if the water’s chilly.

Winter’s a fascinating time for ecology, because it shows how resilient life can be and how clever natural selection is at ensuring that animals survive even when resources are scarce.

While you lament the next freak winter storm on the way, remember that life’s teeming outside, even if it is hidden under a drift.

Writing Fiction as Therapy

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Those of you who read this blog know that Bad Anemone is all about how I cope as a scientist in an absurd world.

Life’s a stressful thing;  we all look for some escape, with some options being better than others.  Drugs, sex, and violence are all negative ways to deal with the pressures.  Other folks turn to exercise, meditation, religion, and other more positive pursuits.  Whatever the method, they work while you are awake.

But what about when you’re sleeping?

Stress wears you down, and unfortunately, sleep is often not an escape.  My daily stress creeps into the metaphorical space of my mind nightly, where my papers get rejected, I’m fired for being crappy, my students rebel against me, and my PhD advisor comes back as Satan, demanding my soul.

Way back in my life, when I was working with crayfish, I did so much with them that I’d see crawdads crawling around in my dreams.  Everyone has an example of doing something so repetitively that it invades your slumber.  Remember that entire month that you played Mario Brothers and dreamt that you were battling Bowsers and rescuing Peaches?   As Freud knew so well, your waking life does not end at night.  In fact, your brain works hard to make sense of your obsessions while you’re sleeping.

I recommend using this to your advantage.  Don’t play video games or count crayfish.  Rather, read fiction and write fiction.  Pick something that excites you and stimulates your mind.  I’ve been doing this for a while now, and the fictional worlds I enter and create have a habit of pushing back the daily dread of my days when I’m sleeping.  Instead of being buried by a mountain of paperwork, I now enter dreamscapes full of new friends and novel wonders.  I can’t say it is perfect, but the dreams are far more manageable.

It is wonderful therapy.