Our science: protecting the public in the 21st century.

“If your science doesn’t correspond to reality, you’re going to lose lives.” – Alexander E. MacDonald


AMS Summer Community Meeting participants may have had their separate motivations for making their way to Raleigh back in August, but all attendees would agree that the meeting’s absolute highlight was an after-dinner talk given by Alexander MacDonald, Ph.D.

Sandy MacDonald is Chief Science Advisor for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, Director of its Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) – and, as good fortune has it, the current AMS president[1]. He billed his talk as “personal” and it was. He billed his talk as “techie at the core” and it was. But these two disparate faces of his remarks weren’t artificially forced together. Instead they were blended in a truly compelling way. The juxtaposition was so apt that it would be hard to imagine either piece without the other. It was a night to remember – and for those in the geosciences and science-based services – to be inspired. But you had to have been there.

That is, until now.

We’ve been given a second chance. Mr. MacDonald reprised this speech at an AMS Chapter meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado, and this time the lecture was recorded. You can find the link here.

While you’re downloading, here’s the kernel of his message. Those of us in Earth observations, science, and services are in the business of protecting people. The Earth is dialing up 21st-century challenges – volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, storms, floods and drought, pollution, tsunamis, climate change and sea level rise, and more – that threaten not just a few lives but entire populations, through direct impacts but also secondary effects on food supplies and public health. If we bring our best game we can see these dangers coming in time to mitigate them. But if we are unable to bring adequate understanding to bear – if our science is too approximate, or arrives too late to anticipate the hazards as they arise, or worse yet, is wrong-headed – we’re going to lose lives. As Mr. MacDonald makes clear from the personal part of his narrative, more than mere statistics are in the balance; we have a sacred calling to protect real, flesh-and-blood individuals.

Take time to view this talk over the weekend (has to be better than watching your favorite baseball or football team find yet another agonizing way to lose, right?), and you’ll be glad you did. You’ll no longer see your job as the “same-old, same-old.” You’ll find yourself champing at the bit to get to work Monday morning and play your role in the 21st-century’s greatest drama.


[1] Mr. MacDonald is also the inventor of Science on a Sphere, one of the most engaging, creative tools for teaching Earth science to come along in a generation. Visitors are entertained and learn from the demonstrations at more than 100 locations worldwide.

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