Innovation? It’s similar to a tractor pull. As a nation, we should take heed and prepare accordingly.

A vignette: in the 1990’s, I did a fair bit of government-related travel. Too many sleepless nights in distant hotel rooms, too tired to read, biological clock messed up, but there would be TV. Would tune around looking for sports channels. In most of the countries (American) football, basketball, etc., were hard to come by. But there was some of the beautiful game (soccer). There were evening summaries of (mostly-Asian) golf. There was plenty of cricket (lot of former British colonies dotted across Asia). Sumo wrestling. And then there was off-hours American sports coverage. Like axe throwing. Log rolling. Drag racing…

…and tractor pulls.

Of course, these were tractors on steroids. Any connection to the riding tractor for your 1/3-acre yard (Really? C’mon, man!) or to the big guys with the fully-enclosed, air-conditioned cabs used by agribusiness was purely accidental. The machines in question look more like tricked-out locomotives. Today’s versions, like that pictured, sport banks of V-8 or V-12 engines. Or WWII piston aircraft engines. Or turbines; in writing this, came across one powered by four. 

The actual contest? Well, after substantial minutes of prep, lining things up – tractor and driver pull a sled for several seconds, over a distance no more than 100 yards. 

Wow, Bill, that certainly must have cured any insomnia you might have had on your travels. Cricket sounds like fast-paced, nail-biting drama by comparison. And what possible connection could there be to serious society-wide innovation?

Here’s the deal. In the formative days, 1920’s farmers used their working tractors, and pulled sleds weighted by friends and neighbors, riding up top. Not enough weight? Add a few more people. The tagline? Pull on Sunday, plow on Monday. Tame stuff. Today’s sled, though, isn’t just any load. It may weigh 60,000 pounds or more, and ratchets this weight forward as it progresses. The front end of the sled has grouser bars acting like teeth, digging into the soil. In this way, the sled’s drag increases with every increment of motion. There quickly comes a point when it’s too much even for 5000-or-so horsepower machines (some powered by methanol and turbocharged; back when I used to watch them there was no mention of or interest in fossil-fuel offsets…). At this point the tractors belch satisfying amounts of flame and smoke and rear up from the effort – lucky to pull the full 100 yards. And then there are the epic fails. They’re explosive – filling the air/threatening drivers and crews with fiery blasts of tractor parts and more smoke – satisfying even the most jaded (or sleepiest) of thrill seekers. 

This is where the parallels to innovation come in: in the same way, as science and technology advance, the store of human knowledge grows along with it. Keeping track of what’s been accomplished, or what’s been tried and led only to a dead end; maintaining focus on what’s truly relevant to a given societal problem, vs. a mere distraction, becomes more of a chore to the researcher. This is a special problem for early-career scientists; successive newcomers find literature reviews evermore daunting. 

[An aside to illustrate the point. The previous LOTRW post, a tribute to my thesis advisor, referred to differences at the University of Chicago between the Department of Physics and the Department of Geophysical Sciences during the 1960’s. Here’s another difference. Physics graduate students taking the qualifying exam were expected to know all of physics (!!). And there was a lot to know. By contrast, the geophysical sciences were in a relatively nascent stage of development. There was a lot less to comprehend. And students weren’t asked to know it all; we were merely required to prove that we could learn something if we had to. With the faculty, students would work out an individually-tailored exam, covering three specific topics. Took a few months to bone up; then stood for questioning.] 

Sixty years ago, issues of the Physical Review, and Physical Review Letters, filled library shelves, containing thousands of heavily-multiply-authored articles, premised on big machines – particle accelerators, plasma-fusion reactors, etc.. By contrast, the Journal of Geophysical Research and the Journal of Atmospheric Science, were slimmer both issue-by-issue and in total shelf-feet, populated with Small Science versus Big Science.  Of course, to look at an issue of JGR or JAS today is to find several special sections and multiply-authored papers, premised on extensive observing and computational infrastructure, basically identical to the physics of yesteryear.

Even back then, Jeremiahs like Derek de Solla Price were noting inexorable trends in all fields of science towards bigger, more expensive research, requiring contributions from communities of scientists, not so much individuals, with less room for small science (and less room as well for “mavericks”). De Solla Price suggested the possibility, in a time frame as short as a century or two that the pace of scientific advance might begin to slow (note that by those lights we’re a third of the way there).

We needn’t be dismayed. After all, science really is an endless frontier. Claims over the years that science has learned all there is to learn have proved premature. Subjectively, the increasing costs of innovation don’t seem to be increasing faster than the resulting economic growth. We have examples. Take Moore’s law. In the mid-1960’s, Gordon Moore conjectured that the number of transistors fitted on an integrated circuit chip was doubling and would go on doubling every two years. That forecast has generally verified over the period since, despite gloomy predictions that it was on the verge of failure. 

The same applies to natural resources. As early as1956 the petroleum geologist King Hubbert predicted that worldwide oil production would peak by 1970. Oil production did in fact peak around then, and declined slowly for decades, until further innovation (primarily the development of fracking) greatly expanded the oil resource. And innovation in the agriculture-, energy-, and water-resource sectors has so far put paid to Malthusian forecasts of doom.

That said, innovation requires a constant societal pull, just like that sled. And society’s “tractor” needs to be robust, not frail; else it’ll self-destruct from any strain.  

Which brings us to the “prepare accordingly” part.

The innovation that matters most is the innovation of innovation itself. We see this most vividly in society when it comes to technology for developing and managing information that is innovation’s foundation. The invention of the computer has made it possible to do the trillions upon trillions of necessary sums that in turn enable control of manufacturing processes, to financial transactions underpinning global commerce, to weather forecasts, to scientific research of every stripe. The internet has enabled communication of such vast amounts of data and calculation worldwide. Development of an internet of things and robotics portends a future in which quotidian human concerns can and will be handled, to increasing extent, autonomously. Exascale and quantum computing seem to be coming online just when needed to meet demands of the big-data analytics and artificial intelligence powering the next round of innovation. As a society, we need to formulate and put into force the policies that will sustain this technological advance.

But this is only the tractor. The driver is another story:

There’s plenty of power at a pull, but driver skill usually is the difference between winning and losing.

Driving skill is critical, especially coming off the starting line. The driver must bring the revolutions-per-minute up on the engine to build the proper manifold boost so the turbos can do their job. When everything is right, the driver side-steps the clutch and the power is unleashed with a big roar.

Knowing the track and equipment is just as important. Each track has a personality of its own, and pullers “read” tracks much like golfers read putting greens.

In short – “anyone” can enter a tractor pull – sit in the seat and “let ‘er rip.” But to finish, with machine intact, let alone win, let alone win with consistency – is like everything else in life. It requires scientific and engineering knowhow, teamwork, and the discipline required to master and maintain the needed skills over a period of years. 

As a society, we need to sustain a growing, diverse workforce to drive innovation writ large. This is a policy challenge of a different kind. More in the next post.

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Remembering Colin Hines (1927-2020).

a young Colin Hines

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”– Theodore Roosevelt

Late last week brought a phone call from Paula and Franco Einaudi, friends of many years, with news that wasn’t unexpected, but was nevertheless unwelcome. They’d just learned that Colin Hines had passed away on August 30. During his very productive lifetime, Colin was a scientist of extraordinary gifts. But the loss for us was also personal. While on faculty at the University of Toronto, Colin had supported Franco’s postdoctoral work. A few years earlier, when Hines had been at the University of Chicago, he’d advised my Ph.D. research. Throughout our lives, but especially during our early careers, Colin had been good to us as well as good for us. The same held true for his nurturing and equipping of his other postdocs and graduate students (George Chimonas and Dick Peltier come especially to mind). We mourn his loss; we celebrate his legacy.

For a few of the basic facts, you might read this obituary (with a mid-career photo) on September 2 from the Toronto Star. Several days of personal reflection over this Labor Day weekend has prompted these (admittedly fragmented) additional vignettes:

Colin the scientist. Colin’s scientific work concentrated for the most part on the Earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere[1]. With the regard to the former his major contribution was the discovery that internal atmospheric gravity waves generated in the lower atmosphere could account for much of the fine scale dynamics observable in the upper region. With regard to the latter he and a colleague, Ian Axford, developed a theory of magnetospheric convection – a conceptual model of the general circulation of the magnetosphere as driven by the interaction between the sun’s heliosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field. This accomplishment compares to Hadley’s 18th-century discovery and characterization of the cellular structure of the tropical atmosphere in response to solar heating that today bears Hadley’s name. These discoveries have each withstood the test of time while serving as portals through which future researchers could enter the field and make myriad additional contributions.

The man in the arena. Throughout his career, Colin embodied Roosevelt’s admired “man in the arena” – down to every last bit of valor and the accompanying dust and sweat and blood. Educated at Cambridge, he exhibited that Cambridge cultural mix of raw intelligence combined with mental quickness that make the tribe so formidable – sometimes even terrifying – at scientific workshops and conferences.  (Think Richard Scorer, Owen Phillips, Francis Bretherton, Michael McIntyre, Tommy Gold, to name just a few I saw in action personally over the years; it’s as if somewhere along the line they’d misheard Descartes to say “I debate, therefore I am.”). One particular moment from an AGU meeting: George Chimonas and I were settling in for a talk when Hines appeared. He said something like “This paper is rubbish from beginning to end. But I have to go across the hall to hear a speaker in a different session. Take care of this guy.” George and I sat through the talk. Sure enough, it wasn’t great shakes, but suddenly during the Q&A Hines reappeared at the back of the room. He caught our attention and gave us a glance as if to say “well?” We shrugged our shoulders. He frowned, raised his hand, proceeded to ask the speaker to show particular slides shown during the talk (how could Hines have even been sure they were there?), and off the cuff gave a different interpretation of everything from the data to the math. Incidents like this weren’t limited to the momentary; some of them were milestones in prolonged controversies that threaded through the literature and technical meetings for years. 

That carried over to the politics of science – not the role of science in politics, but the politics of science played out among the oversized personalities of the scientific community. Colin, a Canadian citizen, had been fairly quiet on such matters during his time in the United States, but upon his return to Canada in 1967 he threw himself into that fray with gusto.  

This same man-in-the-arena spirit extended into every conceivable realm. A University of Chicago vignette: His students had entered ourselves as a team in the graduate school intramural basketball league. We were mediocre-to-poor; one evening we were short a player, and Colin volunteered to join. What could go wrong? 

Our opponents that night were from the business school (today’s Booth School). 

They beat us 70-12.

Worst of it was that Hines took an elbow to the eye, opening a cut that required stitches. Later on, when with him or looking at photographs, I could always see the small scar…

When it came to investments, Colin wasn’t content with balanced index funds or any of that tame stuff; he preferred a much more hands-on approach and developed and applied his own theoretical understanding to the financial world – accepting the ups and downs that brought. He appreciated the arts and literature, but didn’t stop there; he wrote a few novels. At every turn he’d see something, and then try it.

In short, Colin was a force. Sometimes there was a price, not just for him. There would be collateral damage. But on balance, his influence was overwhelmingly positive. And all of us around him constantly had to up our game. He made us better, stronger, more thoughtful.

Colin the gracious. And he could be kind, not just about the small things but the big things. Two of these made a huge difference in my life.

I had graduated from Swarthmore College in 1964, and spent my first year at Chicago as a research assistant (RA) in the physics department, preparing for a career in solid-state physics. I then made the switch to geophysical sciences over the summer of 1965. Hines was kind enough to offer me an RA.  He didn’t assign me any duties at first. After a couple of weeks I went into his office and said as much. He looked up at me from his desk, and said (with the merest hint of a smile? Hard to tell), “Look, I’m happy to support you. But I don’t want to spend my time thinking of ways to keep you occupied.” 

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’d spent an RA year in the physics department, knocking myself out with my fellow graduate students to make our faculty look good, and going home each night struggling to find the hours and energy to study a bit. I could see the same thing going on with other graduate students in the geophysical sciences. Hines was telling me in effect I had a fellowship.

From that point on, I’d have walked through fire for him. 

Then, the second: early in January of 1967 I took my qualifying exams. In the oral phase I wound up talking at cross purposes with Gene Parker (discoverer of the solar wind). Although I passed, the experience did not augur well. A couple of months later (March, April?) I gave Hines a progress report on the start to my thesis research. After a day or two, he called me into his office, and said, “Looks like you’ve broken the back of the problem.” He went on,“Should mention, I’m leaving Chicago at the end of this spring quarter to take a position at the University of Toronto. So why don’t you finish up? Oh, and by the way, Parker is on sabbatical in Greece right now. If you do finish, we’ll have to substitute someone else on your committee.”

!!!

Every other faculty member I’d ever seen or heard of would have been saying to me more like, “so why don’t you pack up, move with me to Toronto, and start out all over again?”

Again, he didn’t have to tell me twice. I shelved sleep (to such an extent that after one 40-hour stint without I convinced myself that there was a “sleep barrier,” a point beyond which you didn’t get any more tired, and I had broken through it[2]) and hammered out the thesis. I defended just before the end of the spring quarter. David Atlas, the radar meteorologist, who’d been on the University of Chicago faculty only a few weeks, replaced Gene Parker on my committee. 

There’s much more, but you get the idea. Colin was a man of passion, in every aspect of his life, but especially when it came to his family – his wife Bernice and his children. That was evident at Chicago, when the kids were small, but during our all-too-brief and sporadic encounters over ensuing decades, he was always full with stories of his kids and their diverse accomplishments, bursting with enthusiasm and pride.

Colin, thanks for entering the arena – and especially for inviting us to join, and in some cases pulling us in! We love and miss you.


[1]Loosely speaking, the ionosphere comprises the air above heights of 35-40 miles or thereabouts. That air is rarefied. For the sake of comparison, the air at the top of Mount Everest (five miles) is only a third as dense as air at sea level. Go up another five miles and the air is only a third of that again; essentially a tenth of the air density at sea level. The total air mass at ionospheric levels is only a thousandth of the mass of the atmosphere as a whole. At or above those heights, the molecules of the air are not protected from the most energetic solar radiation, which strips electrons from the molecules. And still further up, above 200 miles height, virtually all the molecules are ionized, and their motions are constrained by the Earth’s magnetic field as well as the pressure forces familiar here on the Earth’s surface. This highest region is known as the magnetosphere; it extends out a few Earth radii sunward; in an extended tail, many Earth radii in the opposite direction. 

Meteorologists make much of the dynamical complexity of the lower Earth’s atmosphere. The problems posed by weather prediction inspired the very notion of chaos theory. But ionization adds a raft of additional equations and additional layers of complexity to the prediction problem (something like advancing to higher levels of any online game). Colin was singularly adept at working these more complex problems.

[2]Fourteen hours later, I awoke… that’s living on the real world for you, versus fantasyland.

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The Race Awakening of 2020: A 6-Step Guide for Moving Forward

If you’re a person of color in the United States, you’ve been living out the racism issue every single day of your life. But if you’re white, and especially if you’re too young to remember the 1960’s, events of the last several months may be prodding you to dig a bit deeper into what’s going on. This being the 21stcentury, the age of social media, there’s a virtual mountain of material a few key clicks away. It’s expanding every day.

The problem is where to start. 

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve heard of Ed Maibach. Maibach is Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. He’s a leading expert in the field; in fact, he and Tony Leiserowitz just won Climate One’s Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication, given to a natural or social scientist “who has made extraordinary scientific contributions and communicated that knowledge to a broad public in a clear and compelling fashion.” 

No, Ed Maibach has not begun writing on racism per se. But he knows a thing or two about communication. He advises climate scientists this way: “to effectively share what we know, we need simple, clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources… To help people convert their good intentions into effective actions, we need to do everything we can to make the actions we are promoting easy, fun, and popular.”

Hmm. The word “climate” doesn’t appear anywhere in these instructions, suggesting these aren’t mere specialized tactics, but rather general principles, equally applicable to communicating on racism or any other topic. 

Perhaps the advice might guide seekers as well as speakers.

Where can meteorologists find a trusted source on the problems posed by racism and its impacts? Well it turns out that as in many other professional fields, especially the sciences, we have a number – but not nearly enough. Fortunately, one of these has made the effort share his experience and perspective through a small book on the subject – Marshall Shepherd, in The Race Awakening of 2020: A 6-Step Guide for Moving Forward.

A former NASA scientist, Marshall Shepherd is currently a professor of atmospheric science and geography at the University of Georgia. Unusually for a scientist,  he’s well-known to the general public, through his television work and through his regular science contributions to Forbes. (Full disclosure: he’s also a former president of the American Meteorological Society where I work.)

His message blends personal narrative and suggestions for action. Early on in the book, he provides a definition. Citing Bill Jones, one of his college professors, he frames racism as a power imbalance: when a certain racial group holds the majority of political, economic, and societal power, they can explicitly, implicitly or systematically discriminate against others or suppress equality to maintain the balance of power.

The rest of this stage-setting material is equally accessible – simple and clear.

Then he segues to his six proposed actions:

  • See color
  • Shatter flawed narratives
  • Stop using code words
  • Analyze use of microaggressions
  • Speak to your kids
  • Lean on unbiased faith.

Each action is a chapter heading, and as titled contains a bit of mystery, draws the reader in. Each is fleshed out in crisp language. 

The book closes with a checklist of other actionable steps:

  • Complete the census
  • Register to vote
  • Know your state and federal Congressional districts
  • Know your local school board, county commission, and district attorney representatives
  • Engage in school activities, PTSA meetings and parent teacher conferences
  • Support legislation that makes voting easier
  • Have lunch or dinner with someone of a different race, culture, or faith
  • Seek ways to build community bridges between law enforcement agencies and your community
  • Review hate crime laws where you live and advocate for stronger ones where needed
  • Volunteer with organizations helping youth or fighting for civil rights
  • Start a race-focused small group in your church
  • Read other books on racial conciliation
  • Work to eradicate poverty
  • Review your friends group. Are there some that constantly promote or say racist things?
  • Vote (local, state, and national elections)
  • Fervent prayer
  • Keep those cell phones charged

To sum up, Marshall Shepherd, one of the most trusted voices in our community, has provided a simple message. He’s proposed actions that are easy, fun, and popular (chances are the lists above include some measures the reader will find more affirming than new). 

Ed Maibach would give him an A+.

(Oh, yeah, you might ask. Where’s the repeated part? And the variety of sources?)

Glad you asked. Did I say the book was short? It’s a mere 70 pages plus change. And cheap (in fact, free to your Kindle)? So “buy” it. Read it more than once. That’ll take care of the repeated part.

And in the fine print, you’ll find he proposes this action: read other books on racial conciliation. In fact, Marshall Shepherd succeeds in making his readers more accepting/trusting of other voices. His book can be used as a portal to that more extensive conversation, which has been going on for almost as long as there’s been a printed word. There’s your variety of sources.

Want a suggestion for your next step? How about Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-racist? Another, equally engaging view of the world – itself a powerful blend of personal narrative and polemic against racism.

[A tip of the hat here to (my AMS boss) Paul Higgins.  Kendi’s book is well-known, but I probably wouldn’t have read it had it not been for Paul’s repeated, enthusiastic references to it over these past months. Thanks, Paul!]

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Reducing systemic racism.

Addicted: physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects.” – Oxford Languages

“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self criticism, and regular self-examination.” – Ibram X. Kendi

“Racism is steeped in denial.” – Ibram X. Kendi

Each day’s news brings fresh examples of systemic racism to light. What might it take to reduce the racism rampant in our society versus merely lament it? The previous LOTRW post promised a further exploration of this topic.

Ibram Kendi suggests, in How to be an Anti-Racist, that racism shares features in common with addictions – such as alcoholism and other chemical dependencies on opioids and nicotine. To the extent the comparison holds, looking for ideas from that direction might be a good place to start. To do that, however, is to discover that the outlook is not encouraging, for two basic reasons.

To begin, chemical addictions (caffeine excepted) afflict only a fraction of the population. For example, in the United States, with a population north of 300 million, perhaps some 15 million are alcoholics. The number of opioid addictions is put at only ten percent of that latter figure. Smokers number some 34 million. By contrast, systemic racism is near-universal; it dogs all of us. This is the first problem.

Moreover, for metabolic dependencies, there exist some chemical therapies , which though themselves of limited efficacy, can provide some help. But chemical approaches to reducing systemic racism don’t appear to be in prospect. That leaves behavioral approaches. The latter are not actual cures so much as coping strategies. To work, they require vigilant self-awareness and concentrated effort. They must be maintained moment by moment, day to day, essentially indefinitely. Unsurprisingly, relapses are common. That is the second problem.

Organizations provide help to those in need. One of the best-known is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA is not perfect; its faults are several and its detractors are legion. Any web search will provide more information on these. Yet AA can point to some successes, which it attributes largely to its twelve-step program. This being the year 2020, and eight billion people being a large number, the world already includes some who have already rephrased and (slightly) adapted that program for application to the racial problem. Here are the twelve steps as framed by Racists Anonymous:

  1. I have come to admit that I am powerless over my addiction to racism in ways I am unable to recognize fully, let alone manage.
  2. I believe that only a power greater than me can restore me in my humanness to the non-racist creature as God designed me to be.
  3. For my own good and the good of future generations, I have decided to turn my will and my life over to the care of God insofar as I understand God.
  4. I’ve made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself concerning my bias toward others on the basis of race, class, gender, physical attributes, abilities, nationality, sexual orientation, and more.
  5. I have admitted to God, to myself and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongful thoughts and actions.
  6. I am entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. I humbly asked God to remove my shortcomings.
  8. I’ve made a list of all persons I have harmed and am willing to make amends insofar as this is possible.
  9. I will make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them, others, or create more harm than good.
  10. I will continue taking personal inventory, and when I behave wrongly, I will admit it promptly.
  11. I will continually seek through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God insofar as I understand God, praying for knowledge of God’s Will and Wisdom for my life along with the power I need to carry that out.
  12. As I have spiritual awakenings as the result of these steps, I will share this message with other race addicts as I seek to practice these principles in all my affairs.

A few observations.

First, context: as Kendi notes, denial is a critical barrier. Only a fraction of alcoholics can bring themselves to openly admit they have a problem, that they’re hurting not just themselves but others, and that their problem is out of control. Case in point? AA members add up to no more than ten percent of alcoholics in the United States.

But denial is only the initial hurdle, one of several. Again, as Kendi emphasizes, the “searching and fearless inventory” is a similarly big lift. Most of us, if we bother to reflect at all on our shortcomings, gloss over the specifics. Some churchgoers find comfort in the phrase “we have done that we ought not to have done, and left undone that which we should have done,” but surely that falls far short of what’s needed.

We gloss over the particulars because to acknowledge them, to list them, to give them voice, confronts us with our need to make amends. Scale is an obstacle. We recognize that when it comes to systemic racism, “amends” carry considerable economic impacts and redistributive consequences. But it gets worse. A recovering drug user making restitution faces an individual challenge. By contrast an entire society making restitution faces additional complexities and history requiring a social framework for progress. Developing the framework requires collaboration, but it also requires leadership – individuals and institutions at the top who will give actual reparations priority and provide the means and structures that will make our cumulative individual efforts matter. As a result our initial tendency is to see a huge, insurmountable liability rather than recognize that what confronts us is opportunity – a step that opens the way to solving other societal challenges including wresting a safe, meaningful, and sustainable living from the wild and restless and increasingly damaged planet on which we find ourselves.

(This point typically fails to get the primacy it deserves. Many see challenges such as national security, domestic law and order, climate change, environmental degradation, public health, law and order as problems that need to be solved first – only then will we have the luxury of tending to equity and love and trust in our fundamental relationships with each other. But we likely have got the order reversed. It may be that if we first get right with each other relationally, most of our other societal challenges will melt away. And it may be that to make progress we have to make incremental improvements on all these fronts simultaneously.)

But for many, perhaps most, the real elephant in the room is the appeal to a Higher Power, or God as we understand God. Some consider this language anathema and have stripped it from the twelve steps. Here’s one example, attributed to AA Agnostica:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe and accept that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to ourselves, without reservation, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.
  7. With humility and openness sought to eliminate our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through meditation to improve our spiritual awareness and our understanding of the AA way of life and to discover the power to carry out that way of life.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Understandably, much of controversy swirling around AA focuses on this, as any web search will quickly reveal. For some, the active involvement of a Higher Power is what makes the twelve steps effective: the sine qua non. To remove it is to strip the twelve steps of any efficacy. All that is left are empty words. For others, any such bow in the direction of a higher power is pure (and intolerable) hypocrisy – a stumbling block. They’d rather trust in the “collective wisdom” of other searchers.

You and I get to choose where we stand on this spectrum. Many in the middle, desperate to manage their addiction, participate in one or another group spanning this divide and keep their opinions to themselves. But we don’t get to choose what we do. If we are to move the world to a better place, then large numbers, if not all of us, will have to get past denial, do inventory, and make amends. Best to embrace this, rather than flinch from it.

One final point. Action on our part along these lines doesn’t guarantee successful outcomes. That’s because efforts at amends can never make the injured party whole. Damage can never be completely undone. The individuals and groups injured, really all of us, have to add a generous overlay of forgiveness to every social transaction.

And, repeatedly along this path, given the continuous effort required, the obstacles to be overcome, the existential personal and societal stakes, we’re likely to find ourselves offering an unvoiced prayer – whether to something or Someone.

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Fair Weather, version 2020.

“Nothing can be truly great which is not right.” – Samuel Johnson

Some twenty years ago, the Weather Enterprise[1] – the aggregated collection of government agencies, private corporations large and small, and academic institutions providing weather observations, science, and services – acknowledged it had a fairness problem, and took a step towards equity.

Of a certain sort.

The inequity addressed at the time? The institutional interplay across the three sectors. Government saw a need for “benign” control of a public good – weather services, especially forecasts of weather threats to public safety. By contrast, the private sector saw years of “unfair and arbitrary” competition from the National Weather Service, especially relating to forecasts tailored for commercial use. Academics – depending on who viewed them – were either playing both sides or caught in the middle. Relations, although (usually) polite on the surface, had been strained for decades. Meanwhile, societal trends and technological advance were amplifying the problem. The private sector had been growing more capable – increasingly collecting observational data of commercial value, running global numerical models, engaging not just other companies but national governments abroad. Strain was giving way to dysfunction – threatening to compromise the quality of weather services and the pace of innovation at a moment in history when these two attributes were most needed.

The system was systemically unfair.

Matters have improved since then, even as change has accelerated. But today, in the year 2020, an age-old, much deeper, much more pernicious, much more pervasive set of injustices is troubling minds: systemically unequal respect for and treatment of individuals, based on their gender, sexual orientation, and many other factors, but especially – skin color. These inequities are common to, and threaded throughout, the fabric of life and work at every level, from the institutional to the interpersonal, in all three sectors: government, industry, and academia. And they’re not newcomers to the scene. Prejudice, especially racial prejudice, has worked its evils for centuries, perhaps the whole of human experience. The injustice – the oppression – scars society as a whole, in fact endangers the very idea of society. It is seemingly ineradicable, while at the same time it can no longer be tolerated. It must not be allowed to continue. By these lights, the concerns of two decades past affecting weather’s puny corner in human affairs, which had appeared so formidable at the time, today seem trivial, quaint.

To think that Weather Enterprise conversation of the past two decades might be scaled up in some way as to address the larger equity problem would be trivialize the differences in scale and the gravity of the moral challenge – blasphemously so. But at the same time, the Weather Enterprise doesn’t get a pass, doesn’t get to somehow sit in judgment at some 10,000-foot altitude above on-the-ground realities confronting the larger society. Through complacency and sometimes much worse, we have contributed our share to the current problems. Our community finds itself at ground level, submersed in the same evil muck that has mired the larger world. We must accordingly do our part – locally, individually – improve upon the current situation.

All of which raises questions.

Is it possible, even if just barely so, that the philosophy and approach used over the past two decades by the Weather Enterprise to deal with the former unfairness could be recast to be of some small help here? Is it possible that meteorologists could take small steps that might promote inter-racial fairness in our corner of things – within and across the three sectors? And if so, what might that look like?

To develop insights, it is first necessary to review what happened back then.

In 2003, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) published a study, entitled Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services, addressing the problem. John A. Armstrong, retired from IBM, a physicist with no significant prior association with the meteorological world, chaired the committee. He had this to say in the study’s preface:

Over the last four decades the provision of weather and climate services in the United States has evolved from an almost exclusively governmental function to one carried out by a combination of federal, state, and local government agencies (referred to collectively as the public sector), the private sector, and academia. This change has improved and diversified weather and climate services, but has also raised questions about the proper roles of the various sectors and the potential for actual or perceived competition. A recent National Research Council report discussed the roles of the public, academic, and private sectors in a broad range of environmental disciplines (including weather), and proposed guidelines for purchasing data and products for public purposes, dealing with data restrictions, and privatizing government functions. This report focuses on the provision of civilian weather and climate services, barriers to communication among the sectors, and opportunities for improving the effectiveness of the weather and climate enterprise.

The committee’s report concluded, importantly, that it is counterproductive and diversionary to establish detailed and rigid boundaries for each sector outlining who can do what and with which tools. Instead, efforts should focus on improving the processes by which the public and private providers of weather services interact. Improving these processes would also help alleviate the misunderstanding and suspicion that exist between some members of the sectors. However, there is no “magic bullet” that will bring “fair weather” to the partnership. The recommendations below are first steps on a journey that will take time, effort, and persistence to complete.

Their report went on to make recommendations in that spirit, beginning with three focused on strengthening the partnership per se[2]:

  • The NWS should replace its 1991 public-private partnership policy with a policy that defines processes for making decisions on products, technologies, and services, rather than rigidly defining the roles of the NWS and the private sector.
  • The NWS should establish an independent advisory committee to provide ongoing advice to it on weather and climate matters.
  • The NWS and relevant academic, state, and private organizations should seek a neutral host, such as the American Meteorological Society, to provide a periodic dedicated venue for the weather enterprise as a whole to discuss issues related to the public-private partnership.

This last was carefully worded, and should be interpreted with corresponding care. To start, the committee went beyond a generic recommendation to the point of mention of the AMS by name, if only as an example. Though not without precedent, this is unusual in NASEM studies; it’s not done casually. Credit the AMS: thanks to Keith Seitter (AMS Executive Director at the time and still today), and to the volunteer leadership of the AMS at the time and across the years since, the Society acted with vigor on this recommendation. Equally important was the manner of the implementation. All parties recognized that strengthening the partnership was the fundamental work of the partners themselves. The AMS wasn’t being set up as any kind of arbiter; instead, its function was simply to make effective conversation among the partners possible. The AMS accomplished this by working that conversation through everything it had been doing all along: the journal publications, starting with the Bulletin, the Annual Meeting and specialty conferences, the AMS Washington Forum, and more. It also took additional measures: it created a new Enterprise Commission, and a new Summer Community Meeting, designed specifically for extended community-level thought on equity in the partnership.

A second piece mattered equally. The three sectors of what today is called the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise not only initiated the needed conversations, but (with AMS help) also ensured those conversations were sustained. That has proved vital. The discussions of the early years were awkward, even raw; it would have been tempting to walk away from the fledgling effort. But over time, the relationships warmed; a degree of trust began to develop, replacing the preexisting suspicions, misgivings, general wariness. Only because the conversations have persisted can all participants say today that the conversations are worth the time and effort. In the same way, the conversations have mattered only because the conversants used them to evolve in thought and action. The main actors have changed not just behavior but their basic nature, and in the process achieved better, more equitable outcomes.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have been threaded through the conversation on these occasions. These concerns may at first have entered as an aside, but have been moving toward center stage for some time – since before the current crisis stage. The AMS was speaking of the need for diversity in its 2007 articulation of strategic goals (Bulletin of the AMS, March 2007, 45 Beacon section), as seen in these excerpts from Goals 4 and 5:

Goal 4. To create a more scientifically literate population: These efforts contribute significantly toward drawing young people, especially women and minorities, into the sciences in general, and into the sciences served by the AMS in particular.

Goal 5. To attract highly talented and committed people into the professions served by the AMS: The health of the professions served by the Society depends on our ability to attract highly talented and committed people to our field, a challenge brought about by changes in the U.S. demographics and affecting all areas of science, technology, and education. The AMS is committed to increasing its efforts in educating and recruiting young scientists and engineers, especially from the traditionally underrepresented groups of women and minorities.

These points were articulated more strongly in a 2019 Centennial update to the AMS strategic goals. That update takes a set of core values as a starting point, including the belief that: a diverse, inclusive, and respectful community is essential for our science. The reformulated strategic goals include this:

To cultivate a talented, diverse, and enthusiastic workforce in the professions served by the AMS. Despite progress in recent years, the professions served by AMS do not fully reflect our nation’s increasing diversity. The evolving nature of weather, water, and climate science, and of the skills needed to excel in these realms, highlights the importance of cultivating a workforce appropriate for tomorrow’s needs. The AMS must foster a vibrant, highly skilled, and diverse workforce through career development activities, educational programs, mentoring and networking opportunities, and inclusive policies and practices.

The thinking is encapsulated by an AMS Diversity Statement:

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) is committed to, and benefits from the full and equitable participation of a diverse community in its membership, in its activities, and in the audiences that it serves. The advancement of the AMS mission is dependent on its ability to have a professional membership that is fully representative of societal demographics. The Society, therefore, embraces diversity through the inclusion of individuals across age, gender, race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, physical ability, marital status, sexual orientation, body shape or size, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, and other facets of social diversity.

All well and good, but intentions are not enough. What will actually happen? What can and will the AMS do to reduce systemic inequality? As a start the AMS is standing up a Culture and Inclusion Cabinet, under the leadership of Melissa Burt. The intent is that the Cabinet will drive the needed change across the full extent of AMS membership and activities.

This cannot succeed if rank-and-file AMS members like you and me regard ourselves as spectators passively watching the actions of a small group of participants. We all will have to play a part.

The next LOTRW post will examine an (imperfect) parallel to give a feel for the enormity of the challenge. The post following will suggest a simple initial step we might all take in the needed direction.


[1] The Weather Enterprise was not then known by that name.

[2] Subsequent recommendations were targeted at the sectors respectively, and merit a read (and periodic re-reads), but are not the emphasis here.

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Equal.

The killing of George Floyd has triggered a global lament over the racism that pervades and persists throughout the world, resisting every effort to expunge it. What’s most damning? That very persistence testifies we’re not trying very hard.  Whether here in the United States or abroad, our individual and corporate efforts to cleanse ourselves and society of this evil have been and continue to be halfhearted, lackadaisical. We can and should do more.

Yesterday, June 10, thousands of scientists took time from their work to reflect on all this, and focus on an ugly reality, close to home: that scientists and the institutions and ways of doing science and research are part of the problem. This day of soul searching was loosely organized under #shutdownSTEM and other labels. Any bit of probing the internet will provide the specifics and uncover a massive amount of evidence supporting this broad indictment – much more than can be assimilated in any single day, or even a lifetime. 

One thought expressed during the run-up was that white scientists shouldn’t weigh in on June 10. Instead they might better maintain a respectful silence; at most they should limit their presence on social media to, say, retweeting messages originating from scientists of color. (The #shutdownSTEM organizers had seen enough of vaguely supportive pronouncements from whites that were never followed by action.) 

A harsh accusation – but makes sense. That should hold particularly true for me and other more senior white scientists. We’ve not only been complacent at best, and passively or even actively racist at worst; we’ve also persisted in this sorry state the longest. We witnessed, and were drawn into, and recall the racial conflicts of the 1950’s and 60’s personally. We remember the agony as well as the hope of that time, and we’ve lived through, and therefore have been part of the problem, during the decades of failure and inaction since. 

So, silence for 24 hours makes good sense. But that can’t go on indefinitely. So here, on the day after, some takeaways from personal reflection of recent days (more stream of consciousness than any logical framing).

(The headwaters of that stream) started with the idea of “equal,” as captured to some extent by a dictionary definition: as great as; the same aslike or alike in quantity, degree, value, etc.; of the same rank, ability, merit, etc.; evenly proportioned or balanced. A Google search of almost any other idea yields a satisfying set of quotes or notions that help bring the abstraction to life, make it tangible, give it some sparkle. But “equal?” Not so much. Perhaps it’s the solemn – more accurately the sacred – nature of this moment in history. But the “equal” quotes you’ll find don’t even come close to what’s needed today. At best they nibble around the outermost fringes of the concept. (Please let me know if you have one you like.)

(Further downstream),“equal” holds a special place in mathematics and physical science. It’s the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega. 

F= ma

E=mc2

To scientists, therefore, equality should matter a lot. But here’s the deal. Even in physics and mathematics, equality is all about relationship. Equality tells us how force is related to mass and acceleration; how energy is related to mass and the speed of light, and so on. 

What’s more, despite claims of “objectivity,” all science and mathematics is a human construct, and every bit of that construct comes out of human relationship. Scientists can’t (and haven’t) accomplished their work alone, but only in concert, or conversation, or debate with one another, and/or by building on the insights of predecessors. So for scientists to struggle to get equality right is especially disappointing.

Which brings us (further downstream, through cascading rapids) to the social sciences, and to the application of any branch of science to human benefit. Again, relationships hold the key. Suppose a band of us see climate change or some other challenge as existential. Suppose we take shortcuts and attempt to gain a momentary political advantage in order to impose a corrective fix on others, with the idea that we will have time and opportunity to repair any broken relationships later, after we have solved the physical problem. However meritorious that solution, we’ll likely find ourselves thwarted, struggling in a morass of polarized argument or worse. Now, suppose instead that as individuals and society we make fairness and building trusted relationships our starting point. Then we can meet any and all human challenges (not just climate change, but also poverty, education, healthcare, and much more).  Relationships are either equitable, built on mutual agreement among equals, in which case they’re sustainable; or abusive, or exploitative – in which event they tend to fail disruptively, sometimes explosively so. A special branch of science known as game theory provides example after example. 

Finally, as the stream of consciousness (now a river) empties into the larger context (the ocean), we might consider how much equality, especially racial equality, matters in any “larger scheme of things.”

It’s possible to arrive at the right answer here by human insight alone, but throughout much of the past and today it helps many of us to see this on a spiritual plane: to know that each of us, regardless of gender or skin color or sexual orientation or any other genetic or acquired trait, is made in the image of God (So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen1:27). And this is true whether we see this as actual fact or as metaphor. 

The reality? Nothing matters any more than this. We get this right, and everything else necessarily falls into place; it’s smooth sailing. Mess up – and we deserve the grief that’s coming.

Footnote: Similar views have appeared in LOTRW throughout the years. You can find a few examples here and here.

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Scientists! Don’t just stand there; dance!

“Dance with your heart, and your feet will follow.” (variously attributed.)

“Make love your aim.” –the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 14:1)[1]

The 2020 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium is entering its second day, and I’m again reminded why it’s my favorite time of the year. Two dozen early-career scientists from all over the country (and with roots extending around the world) coming to DC (this year, virtually) for ten days of conversation with policymakers. The sole purpose? Learning how to work together to make the world a better place (for scientists, this means being as disciplined and responsible in engaging the policy process as they are in their approach to their science). 

Good company? A grand goal? What’s not to like?

Of course, these sessions only add up to a week; the participants have already been making the world better for years before they got here. And after they leave, decades of continuous good-doing and simultaneous learning lie ahead. But for many in similar cohorts from the previous twenty years, the experience has been transformative.

This year, participants were asked individually to declare a policy topic of interest to them. Their answers have been thoughtful and varied. A few examples:

“I am interested in ways to promote public trust in scientific findings, especially in climate change topic.”

“I am curious to explore the intersection between research and policy. In other words, how can we, as scholars, encourage policy decision making through our research? Who should we contact to get that ball rolling? I am also interested in making science policy more inclusive and making sure that underrepresented groups are represented in future legislation and budgets.”

“I am particularly interested in addressing the increasing K-12 STEM educational gap that is growing between the U.S. (formerly a leader in science education) and other countries. I am also interested in policies that have the potential to increase both sustainability and economic growth (e.g. investment in renewable resource technologies, creating a more efficient and accessible recycling industry).”

“I am interested in the relationship between research, policy, and the general public and how to increase trust and understanding within those areas.”

“…I am looking forward to getting a broader understanding of weather policy, but more specifically I’m really interested in learning more about the intersection of policy, advocacy, and the public trust.”

“I’m interested in learning effective methods for communicating science with policy-makers, particularly in translating ‘why they should care’. With my background in Atmospheric Science, I’m especially interested in policies that regulate the emissions of local air pollutants and greenhouse gases but also consider myself a generalist interested in science and technology broadly.”

After reading this, one of the participants, Toni Klemm, offered:

I’ve used the Compass Message Box file://localhost/(https/::www.compassscicomm.org:message-box-online) a few times to translate my science into non-science language. It’s an excellent tool to translate science into points relevant to policy makers. We even used it in a workshop on improving collaboration and communication. Shameless plug to a blog post I wrote about the workshop that used the message box, with an example of my current research:  https://toniklemm.weebly.com/blog/science-needs-collaboration-so-we-made-a-workshop-for-it

 His plug might be shameless, but Compass Message-Box tip is spot-on, and his blogpost itself is terrific, and worth a careful read. In it, he breaks down the scientist-to-rancher communication process into component parts, highlights the role and importance of each, and more.

Which brings us to dancing.

This is exactly how I’ve approached dancing. Analysis is very appealing to (this) scientific mind. Over the years, I’ve had the chance to have a lot of dance lessons. I listen carefully to the instructor explaining the steps. I work hard to remember the sequences – how each move leads in to the next. I break it down to components. Then I practice, practice, practice.

And the result is a nightmare. A crime against nature. A concatenation of errors. I’m not just clumsy, I’m an existential threat to my dancing partner – and perhaps to all humankind.

My wife and I met when we were in our early thirties. Even at that age, I’d only danced a relative handful of times. My high school senior prom was just about my first date ever (and a catastrophe of another sort; I’ll share the details only when and if you and I get to know each other better). By contrast, I don’t think my wife had ever known a time when she wasn’t dancing. When the music starts, her eyes light up. She begins to move and sway, effortlessly, gloriously. The magic, always there, becomes even more powerful. As she dances – and I stumble – she’s smiling, encouraging, whispering:

“Just let yourself go – just feel the music, let the music guide you.”  What she’s really saying is “Dance with your heart, and your feet will follow.”

Well the same principle applies to scientists communicating with non-scientists. The starting point is caring. (And, actually, proof-of-caring is when the starting point is listening; yesterday’s Colloquium speakers said as much in varying ways.)

Toni doesn’t need to be told this. He knows this so well it’s a given, instinctive; allowing him to move on, to focus on, and explain, the component pieces. 

But for the rest of us, if we keep firmly in mind how much the person we’re with matters to us; how their well-being is paramount, then science communication will be not one-way but two-way, and collaborations based on it will be as natural as breathing, and good outcomes will follow.

A postnote: my wife and I had a seven-week courtship, and a 13-day engagement (didn’t want her to have the time to let the implications of those two-left feet sink in); we will have been married, happily, for 44 years, later this month. I ‘ve danced with her with my heart that whole time.

Happy anniversary, darling.


[1]The verse immediately following Paul’s famous love chapter, that is a component of so many marriage ceremonies.

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A sextillion little grey cells, all thinking fast-and-slow, all needing to up-their-game at both.

Me and mine are ready for global change. Are you?

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” ― Daniel Kahneman, (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011)

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! it has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.”– Proverbs 6:6-8 (NIV)

In his brilliant 2011 book, Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and (Nobel-winning) behavioral economist lays out the landscape and functioning of the individual human brain. He finds there – and illuminates – two systems of thought:

System 1. Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional stereotypic, unconscious(pinpoint the  source of a sound, read pop-up ad text…)

System 2. Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious(identify the source of that sound, evaluate a piece of complex logical reasoning).

His focus is primarily on the individual; he concludes, inter alia, in each of us there’s a tendency for these two approaches to be at war. (With considerable oversimplification – there’s obviously much, much more to explore here), our default to one or the other, and misuse of either and both, leads to errors, and ties in to over-confidence in our judgment.

Something of an analogy to this might be discerned in groups – in particular, to society’s approach to two major challenges. First, there’s the set of global changes slowly unfolding as going-on-eight-billion people consume food, energy, water and other resources more voraciously than the less-numerous, less-advanced societies of the past. These largely-negative changes have been growing visibly, irrefutably more evident for some time now, but individuals and nations have been responding slowly and hesitantly to the inexorable transformations. The demands on our logic, our ability to calculate, at a sustained level have required more effort than we’ve been able to supply. We can’t seem to hold that thought.

More recently, each of us has been caught up what feels like the opposite circumstance – the world’s wild, chaotic reaction to the covid-19 pandemic.  Peoples and nations, and their leaders, have responded instinctively, following pre-existing biases and proclivities. The emergency and the front-end loading of the necessary decisions has defied puny national efforts to respond more strategically. 

It would seem not just our individual thinking, but also our group-think, whether fast or slow, could stand improvement. This, despite the fact, as pointed out in the previous LOTRW post, as a species we have a sextillion neurons, an additional and rapidly-growing high-performance computing power, and other assets to bring to any such task. 

If the problem isn’t in any lack of aggregate brainpower, then it must lie in how we deploy it, bring it to bear. That has two dimensions.

The first is whether we coordinate and collaborate, or instead work at cross purposes. For years observers of the world scene have decried a growing polarization of society, along fault lines of income disparity, race, gender, politics, and more. Pick any topic; as each emerges it seems our first order of business is find a framing that drives us to divide into opposing teams, close to a 50-50 split; then each side works harder to achieve 51-49 advantage than to identify common ground. That’s happening in spades when it comes to climate change and covid-19.

The second is that we underinvest thought on topics that matter. We ignore long-term goals such as improved education, and educational opportunity for all, building a culture of innovation, managing big risks such as disasters, global change, etc. Our inability to cooperate and sustain cooperation motivates us instead to seek individual security and well-being – and focus on a short term gratification. Our individual problem with the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment scales up to a global one.

The existence of this problem – and its cure – have long been known. Every American studies it repeatedly in K-12 history classes. The founders of our country knew that it is human nature to act in short-term self-interest. They constructed the Constitution as best they could so that each American, by acting in that momentary self-interest, would contribute to a more enduring public good. The construct has creaked and struggled ever since. (Each generation sees a new set of flaws, or more frustratingly – a new expression of the old historic set. Slavery and racial inequality heading today’s list – surely a plague on our souls proving as endemic as any virus.) But we’ve persevered.

In short, the cure is – getting the policies right.

A few examples. We all agree here in America to drive our automobiles of the righthand side of the road. We do this without thinking. Similarly, the vast majority of us pay our taxes. An infrastructure of rules and regulations are constructed make actions such as this far easier for each of us than any alternative. We do these things without tying up many of the little grey cells – our compliance is nearly instinctive.

Ants have really mastered this. Individual ants are short on brainpower. They boast a mere 250,000 or so neurons each, versus your- and my 100 billion. But there are somewhere between 100-10,000 trillion ants (the more recent figure vs. E.O. Wilson’s mid-1990’s estimate) worldwide. That would give a number of neurons between 0.02 and 2 sextillion neurons (approaching the human-population figure at the high end, just as the total global ant body mass would approach that of ours).

It’s taken them 100 million years, but through trial-and-error they’ve gotten the policies right. For example, they’ve solved the global change problem. Ant hives provide nearly-ideal conditions of temperature and humidity, easy access for food and water, the needed means of waste disposal and protection against predators. It took ants tens of millions of years, but they developed the ability to survive at least one mass extinction (a success record we have yet to prove we can equal). They’ve done this, and continue to do so, in large-part by being cooperative to a fault. Nobody’s in charge! No ant can be accused of having the big picture! But they’ve got the policies right.

Back to human beings: it could be argued that science per se falls closer to the short-term. individual gratification end of the human activity spectrum than to the long-range strategic investment. Gaining knowledge and understanding can bring relatively immediate personal satisfaction and joy. But to stop there – particularly in those geophysical and social sciences that document human failure (inaction in the face of climate change, deficiencies in hazard risk management, declines in the protection provided by ecosystem services, etc.) – would be an essentially selfish act. 

Scientists in those fields shoulder special responsibility for getting the policies right – policies for harnessing scientific and technological advance to human benefit, actually solving problems rather than merely inventorying them. That requires equal discipline, but of a different kind. It requires attention to human relationships, to fairness and cooperation. It requires acceptance of delayed gratification. It requires insight into the emergent consequences of different policy options.

This is an existential challenge for natural- and social scientists (and, closer to home, a particular focus for the two dozen scientists who for the next ten days will participate in the AMS 2020 Summer Policy Colloquium).

And be of good cheer. We don’t have ten million years to figure it out — probably more like a handful of decades. But we’re brighter than ants. And we can change our policies on a dime. Each of us, acting unilaterally, can make building trust and cooperating our policy too. As the ants tell it, once we do that, it’s easy sailing the rest of the way.

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Look to the little grey cells.

Poirot and Inspector Japp

“It is the little grey cells, mon ami, on which one must rely.”– Hercule Poirot (speaking literally under the authority of Agatha Christie).

Streaming video has made binge-watching a thing. But covid-19 has taken binge-watching viral[1]. Deprived of dining out, travel, and big-venue sports and entertainment, we’ve made streaming video a worldwide pastime. We’re spending our evenings on the prowl for fresh content. 

At our place, we’ve worked through a number of options: one recurrent theme (apart from videos of old live country music performances) has been British crime. So far we’ve worked through Morse, Lewis, Endeavour, Shetland, Hinterland, and Vera, among others, and we’ve barely made a dent (who knew the English were such a murderous lot?). We’ve also consumed Miss Marple.

Which brings us to Hercule Poirot. (Thirteen seasons. A couple of dozen single episodes, perhaps 30-40 more double episodes. Perfect, as the Belgian detective might say, “for the watching of the binge.” So far we’re only 20% through…)  

Poirot was one of a kind, unique unto himself. His companion Hastings described him this way:

… hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.

Ah, the Poirot brain. In each mystery case, Poirot’s little grey cells are his starting point, his sole focus and priority throughout, and his instrument for delivering the coup de grace at the end. Invariably the authorities and those around him approach each crime or conundrum in great states of mental agitation and with commensurate physical hyperactivity, little of which bears fruit. Meantime, Poirot has usually retreated to a Zen-like state of preternatural calm and thought, often at a fine restaurant, allowing him to distinguish between the essential – however seemingly inconsequential – and the superfluous, no matter how weighty in outward appearance. 

This trait is understandably annoying, the more so, since in Poirot’s own words Always I am right. It is so invariable it startles me… I must be right because I am never wrong. Hastings, Inspector Japp, and others constantly berate him for his refusal to lend a hand to the great efforts that test them. Agatha Christie herself said of him at one point that he was a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”

But Poirot remains unmoved.

Each of us – eight billion strong – blend bits of Hastings and Poirot. We constantly balance our proclivity for thought and our desire to act. Two great challenges, covid-19 and climate change, rivet the world’s attention these days. It’s vital that we take action with respect to each, not neglecting either totally in our need to deal with each other. But it’s equally important that we think through what action is needed before leaping into either fray. 

Fortunately, we’ve never been better equipped. When it comes to action, the past two centuries of technological advance and economic development, and deployment of trillions of dollars of energy, water, food, communications, and financial infrastructure have us favorably positioned. 

And when it comes to thinking, order-of-magnitude ten billion people with 100 billion neurons per person have at our disposal an astronomical 1021 little grey cells to bring to bear. In the meantime, we’ve developed digital supplements – information technology, based on the billion or so transistors in each chip at the heart of a cellphone, and in supercomputing of growing power, aggregating, according to one estimate 3×1021. A coincidence? Certainly. And fleeting; transistors are proliferating like rabbits, even as humans throttle back on population growth. 

(The comparison is a bit unhelpful. A neuron can fire 100 or so times a second; a transistor switches on and off a billion times faster. But a transistor has only three connections to the outside world, while a neuron can be connected to other neurons through as many as 10,000 synapses. It’s like comparing an apple with a cyber-orange.)

Fact is, we may be reaching a bit of a tipping point. Around the time most of us were born, human beings were clearly in the driver’s seat. But today, the IT world is giving us a run for our money. A century or so from now, historians, or their robo-counterparts, may see this transition as significant – perhaps more momentous in impact on human affairs than either covid-19 or climate change. Doubt this? Let me offer binge-watching as a case in point. Okay, a bit tongue-in-cheek; but the point is, we’re releasing the genie; going forward, we’re living with it[2]

But we remain in charge until further notice. Any artificial intelligence serves us, not the other way around. With that comes responsibility. 

Today, this Memorial Day weekend, we give thanks to those who sacrificed their lives on the field of combat so that we might enjoy the blessings of liberty and some measure of peace. Let us also give thanks to our predecessors who took advantage of that liberty and opportunity to advance the science, technology, and associated infrastructure that position us to meet today’s global challenges, which are battles of a different kind. Let’s do them honor by steadfastly (and thinking of today’s healthcare workers, even heroically, when necessary) wielding the new tools time and circumstance and their efforts have given us, and thus do our bit to build a better world. 

We can’t afford to dally! Neither can we jump in naively or willy-nilly. Let’s be thoughtful, and start, and continue as we proceed, to exercise the little grey cells.

Saving the binge-watching for day’s end.


[1]So to speak… Apologies, have been housebound far too long…

[2]As noted years ago in in Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, edited by Lightman, Sarewitz, and Desser (2003).

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Keep your eye on the (climate-change) ball.

“The trick is this: keep your eye on the ball. Even when you can’t see the ball”– Tom Robbins

In today’s all-covid, all-the-time world, coronavirus images such as that shown here have replaced the happy-face as the emoticon of choice. News and social media, ever hungry for new content and eyeballs seem intent on re-writing, re-framing every story ever written on any subject whatever, using covid-19 as the new starting point. The result is a blizzard of information, perspective, and emotion – much of it undeniably valuable, but making it hard to see much of anything else.

The situation is not unlike watching television in the 1950’s. When I was in fourth grade and we were living in Arlington, Virginia, our family didn’t have a television, so we’d see tv only when we visited our neighbors. Usually this was to watch a baseball game, which was a big deal for a young guy (and for Dad). Our friends’ rabbit-ears antenna and weak signal strength combined to produce images like this, that were largely obscured by a blizzard of another sort, visual noise called “snow” (for obvious reasons):

(scoured the web for an image as grainy as this one of an actual baseball game, but couldn’t find one, for understandable reasons)

Now – imagine trying to find the ball against the background of baseball field. You couldn’t! The ball was impossible to distinguish from any of the snow. 

So viewers did something else. We watched the fielders – and the base-runners. Who was moving? In what direction? And lo! 

By following the players, you knew where the ball had to be.

It’s possible to do something similar today. To see this, let’s look at a few players – from government, from industry, and from the private sector. What are they doing and saying? Here’s a very small sample – (TOTALLY cherry-picked…but remember, cherry-picking could yield thousands, not mere hundreds, of similar examples).

From the public-sector:

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse(D-RI). Here’s one of the Senator’s recent press op-eds, run by nbc news: Trump’s coronavirus response proves Congress once again needs its own science advisers. Coronavirus grabs the headline, but the Senator’s concern is about something far more-reaching, and more enduring: Congress’ need for science advice, clearly evident during the past quarter century since the shutdown of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995, and sobering to contemplate as we look toward a future. The Senator notes:

Congress still faces challenges that demand the headlights of science, from climate change to artificial intelligence to genome editing to cybersecurity — not to mention this and future pandemics. Taking on those challenges will demand more and more of the best scientific expertise and data, something no single member of Congress can marshal without help. We will need the OTA more than ever in decades to come

He closes with this: 

Science provides society its headlights — showing us where we are going and warning us of dangers ahead. The steadily climbing death totals and dire economic fallout from COVID-19 are a price of driving without headlights.

As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. By restoring Congress’s own scientific ability, we will help to ensure that it understands the facts. We must switch on our headlights. Then, together, we will see the challenges ahead more clearly and rise to meet them.

The full op-ed is worth a careful read. 

President’s Science Advisor Kelvin Droegemeier. In mid-April, NASA published on behalf of OSTP a request for information (RFI) on predictability of the Earth system in its most fundamental sense, seeking input with respect to the following questions:

1. Needs and benefits: What are the major needs/requirements for enhanced Earth system predictions/projections (anomalies, extremes and trends), to improve societal resilience and inform decisions, that are being only partially met or are unmet because of limitations in our understanding of Earth system predictability? What would be the socio-economic benefits of more adequately fulfilling these requirements/needs? Which new and/or enhanced Earth system predictions/projections could result from a successful Earth system predictability R&D effort?

2. Gaps and barriers: What are the top three R&D gaps/barriers that are inhibiting progress in the understanding of Earth system predictability to meet needs/requirements (as highlighted under Question 1) across the following areas:  a) observations and process research; b) modeling, technology, and infrastructure; and c) coordination and partnerships?

3. Opportunities and activities: What are the top three R&D opportunities and related activities for making substantial progress in the understanding of Earth system predictability towards the enhancement of Earth system predictions/projections?

The motivation for such inquiries? Global change in all its facets, including climate change, looms as a challenge far more forbidding than any single pandemic. The covid-19 event has refocused eight billion people on the importance of predictive models. Modeling/predictions of infectious spread are essential tools for formulating national- and even state and local level policy with respect to containment in the absence of vaccines. The world emerging from this pandemic will be more accepting of the importance of climate models in guiding environmental and energy policies (and much more). At the same time, world publics will be more demanding of the performance of those models with respect to outlook time horizon, accuracy, and utility. The work being initiated by the White House now will be vitally useful to the world of the future, just as epidemiological modeling is an essential guide today. 

Private sector. Worldwide, investors see losses to the global economy over the 21stcentury amounting to as much as $100 trillion. Understandably, their demands for corporate action are growing more pointed. BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, controlling over seven trillion dollars of investment has made it policy to avoid investments in companies that have a high sustainability-related risk. JPMorganChase shareholders are pressuring the firm on its fossil-fuels portfolio. Other examples are easy to find.

Academia. Nationwide and worldwide, research universities are focused short-term on hiring freezes, furloughs, and just how to reopen this coming fall safely and sustainably (that is, how to reduce the risk of facing yet another emergency shutdown in the face of a resurgence of covid-19 cases). But longer-term, they’re still paying attention to the Earth sciences agenda. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) have just published a new vision for NSF Earth sciences from 2020-2030 (specifically, the solid Earth), addressing investments in collaboration, workforce, and infrastructure over the period. NSF is now asking NASEM to mount a similar study looking across the Earth sciences (including atmospheric sciences, oceanography, etc.) more broadly.

What to make of all this? Just the simple point that despite the current global attention riveted on the covid-19 health threat and related economic impacts, efforts to head off a series of Earth-system threats and take fullest advantages of corresponding opportunities continue. 

Working in Earth observations, science, and services? It’s more important than ever to keep our eye on the ball, to the exclusion of the crowd noise, that windblown plastic bag tumbling across the infield, and other distractions. 

You’re a player! Act so that others can know where the climate-change ball is… by watching you.

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