Over the hundred-year lifetime of the American Meteorological Society, meteorologists and scientists in related disciplines spanning hydrology, oceanography, climatology, space weather and even a bit of social science have made great strides. With sustained national support – from both the Congress and the American people – they’ve greatly expanded basic knowledge and understanding. They’ve developed and deployed platforms and instruments of unprecedented diagnostic power for observing the Earth system. They’ve applied continuing advances in high-performance computing to prognosis – predicting from the novel observations what the Earth system will do next. Such progress has repaid the national investment many times over. Today’s forecasts support impact-based decision making across the entire national agenda. The resulting world is a safer, more prosperous, more sustainable place for all eight billion of us.
This said, it could be that meteorology’s contribution over the period – its bigger gift to the larger world – is not any particular technological feat, but rather that it has built, and continues to operates in, community.
To go further, it could be that community, rather than any specialized knowhow, is the fundamental starting point for solving any and all of humanity’s complex challenges – not just environmental issues but public health, poverty, national security and more.
A bit of personal perspective as we dig a bit deeper. There are very few perks for being older (especially, we’re reminded, in this era of covid-19), but one of them has been the privilege of working for more than half of the AMS history, and experiencing that history on the ground.
Back in 1956, I was thirteen. My ninth-grade science textbook, which happened to deal with weather, started out with this line: “Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.”
Sound familiar? The notion, in its broader outlines, is widely held. It’s even featured in LOTRW, both in the blog and the book (pp. 169-170). It’s directly influenced my study and career choices for more than 60 years.
Why should that be? The idea is both imperfect and incomplete. Scientists themselves don’t always live up to the lofty standard. And scientists have no monopoly on community. Non-scientists can be and are in common cause. Close to home, not all employees of NOAA nor all members of AMS would consider themselves scientists.
The quote isn’t even that artfully expressed. The words community andcommonare in substance and tone a bit repetitive, redundant even. The quote lacks the important second bit covered in the previous LOTRW post– it makes no acknowledgment of any common purpose for that common search, namely, the benefit of life.
But for all these clear flaws, the aphorism highlights the idea of community – of a oneness and a sense of in-it-together. In the mid-1960’s, when I was a graduate student in physics at the University of Chicago, any such spirit was obscured by competition, stress, and insecurity rampant in the lab and the classroom. In the search for something better, I found myself transferring (not out of any exceptionally thoughtful or systematic process) across campus to the Department of Geophysical Sciences.
And stumbled into a different culture. Dave Fultz was conducting rotating dishpan experiments in his rats’ nest of a basement lab. Roscoe Braham’s graduate students were bumping around in the tail of research aircraft collecting in situ cloud-drop and ice crystal samples. Ted Fujita was chasing tornadoes around the country, gathering proxy data – patterns of fallen trees, the trajectories of windblown debris, which way the laundry had been blowing in back yards (okay, maybe not that last one) – to build his understanding of tornadogenesis. Hsiao-Lan Kuo and George Platzman were squeezing the Navier-Stokes equations to make them sing. Lines separating faculty from students were blurred. Nobody fully understood how anything-geo worked; unsolved problems were everywhere. Nobody was going to get rich. Nobody was chasing a Nobel Prize. The whole weather crowd was consorting with geophysicists, vulcanologists, paleobiologists.
A lot has changed over the past half-century. Meteorology (and the Earth sciences generally) has grown up. The journals and their content have proliferated. The private sector is active, growing, and morphing right before our eyes. But the sense of community has remained. It was on full display Wednesday evening, January 15, 2020, at the climax of this year’s Annual AMS Meeting in Boston. A record number of attendees thronged across the venue, enjoying the music, the food – and each other’s company. And that company was diverse, with respect to gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., but also embracing instrument builders, numerical modelers, physical scientists, social scientists, operational forecasters, corporate exhibiters, users of services and data equally. And that’s before we get to country of origin – the crowd was international. Any such group breaks into clusters, but these were clusters, not cliques. The smaller groups were similarly diverse, and shifting and changing in a wonderfully dynamic and fluid way all evening.
Bottom line? Even as meteorology (broadly described) has expanded and matured, as the players have multiplied, the personal and institutional stakes have risen and “self-interest” has become more textured, an overlay of common purpose – a safer, more productive, more sustainable world – has remained paramount. In part that’s inherent in the subject matter. Unlike a proton or chemical compound or strand of DNA that can be studied in any isolated laboratory, the Earth’s atmosphere is of a single piece, and yields its secrets only to global collaboration. Meteorologists (again broadly described) are cooperative either because their psychologies are shaped by the demands of the profession, or because only the more cooperative by nature self-select and enter the field.
Which brings us back to the idea that it is the AMS community as well as any technical prowess that might be our most important gift to the world.
The idea offers both encouragement and caution. To see this, let’s consider the example of climate change. The challenge it poses is dire. The stakes are existential. A world polarized by especially by differences in wealth and circumstance that were once hidden but now laid bare by today’s social media, is deeply divided. Scientists see the urgency and the ways in which delay and failure to face and deal with the problems are foreclosing on the better global options and outcomes. The temptation is to see the issue as a battle and to think it necessary to force through policies nationally and worldwide by capturing momentary political advantage – any relationship building must take a back seat until we get sustainable policies locked into place.
This approach “works,” but victory sometimes comes at a terrible cost. To illustrate: the Affordable Healthcare Act has provided access to medical attention for many previously uninsured, including millions of children. But the process by which it was achieved has built up lasting and corrosive political antibodies – captured in the more common name, Obamacare.
So perhaps we might more effectively deal with climate change the other way around. We might first build what is sometimes described as a bridge of trust that can support the weight of truth. By doing our part to establish common ground with all of society, rather than scolding or preaching to any part of it, we can arguably enhance prospects for solving not only climate change, but many other societal ills as well.
Our own community is our best selling point for this. If and when people look at us, they see community, they’ll feel comfortable buying in – perhaps even eager to do so. They may feel more disposed to look for communal approaches to other global and national problems – to walk back some of the barrier-building that has crept into our world. If instead they see a mirror of the larger society’s larger divisiveness, dysfunction, and factionalism, they’ll want no part of the climate solutions we have on offer.
Community: the greatest asset of the AMS and the larger set of professionals in which we’re embedded.
(In fact, the label scientist can itself be polarizing; hence the LOTRW preference for the more general idea of realism and living on the real world – not the world we imagine or wished existed but the world as it actually is. We don’t all see ourselves as scientists. But embracing the importance of realistic thinking and action? That unites us.)