Thanksgiving reflections 2017. Part 1.

“Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times. The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.Wikipedia

There’s so much to like about the Thanksgiving holiday! To give thanks is an act that has no parallel. To give thanks in the company of family and/or friends adds powerful texture and richness to the experience – especially as our bonds to those family and friends are the very essence of what makes us most thankful. Add this: the occasion is almost always centered around a shared table and a meal. The simplicity of Thanksgiving – the atmosphere of love and hospitality, and the perishability of everything about the moment save for the indelibly-etched, treasured memory – overshadow, at least for a few days, the seeming brokenness and all-too-evident troubles of the world we live in and of our daily routine. We’re reminded of what truly matters[1].

That said, this is a largely professional blog. While virtually all of us would say that family comes first, we spend a large fraction of our waking hours working. It’s consequently reasonable to hope, and perhaps even to expect, that work will offer us additional reasons for gratitude.

It therefore seems appropriate to observe this year’s Thanksgiving season with a short series of LOTRW posts on four attributes of my work that make me thankful. If all goes accordingly to plan, you’ll find four posts, dealing consecutively with:

  • a community of scholars (1956, 1965)
  • a higher cause (1986)
  • colleagues (present day)
  • thanks to Someone (1976).

The four posts will be a bit personal – more so than usual – but that’s not the point. My hope is that each will prompt you to develop your own, equally personal short lists of those aspects of your work for which you are profoundly thankful – inventories of special meaning for you, self-assessments that will encourage you in the weeks ahead.

So here goes:

I’m thankful to be a member of a work community. I’m the son of mathematicians, and it never really occurred to me I’d be anything but a physical scientist or an engineer. In ninth grade, in 1956, I was in a not-particularly-good junior high in a tough section of greater Pittsburgh (my ambition was to graduate with all my teeth)[2]. Our science text wasn’t that great (interestingly it was about weather) but the book’s first page offered a line that struck me as magical. In the 60 years since, it’s never left me: “Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.” At the time, I thought of my Dad, and his friends, and my uncle the plasma physicist, and his friends, and I knew I wanted to be part of that community.

It’s the reason I’m in the geosciences today. I majored in physics in college, and spent my first year in graduate school at the University of Chicago in physics, but there found the atmosphere to be strained and competitive. A friend suggested I look into the university’s Department of Geophysical Sciences. So after my first year (in 1965), I transferred – and walked into the sunshine[3].

In the geosciences at the time, nobody was going to win a Nobel Prize. No one was going to get rich. But there were more than enough research problems to go around. Fascinating problems – dealing not with abstractions but phenomena you could see, occurrences that people confronted every day. Whether the global weather forecast challenge forced cooperation, or whether it attracted scientists who were inclined to cooperate – collaboration, the sharing of data and insights and technique – were the order of the day. I started making lifelong friends. We were a community. Engaged in a common search for knowledge.

Of course, since then, Molina, Rowland, and Crutzen shared a Nobel for their ozone work. A handful of entrepreneurs have achieved a modicum of wealth. Rapid technological advance and the dizzying success and growth of the big-data firms and social networks, with their accompanying emphasis on scale and market share, challenge the existing social contract among meteorologists, and between meteorologists and society. The demands of society for help with every aspect of the human agenda – escalating needs for food, water, and energy; management of hazard risks and environmental degradation – strain the social fabric. But to date, meteorologists and social scientists speak of the Weather Enterprise, comprising government, private-sector, and academic components, as a coherent community, and continue to see service to the larger society as a common, shared goal, rather than a competitive, exclusive one, with winners and losers, or winner-take all.

Such community may prove temporary. It’ll require much hard work, and corporate will, to maintain it.

But for now, in 2017, for all of us, whether meteorologists, or part of the larger society counting on help from meteorologists, this community is cause for Thanksgiving – indeed, (channeling Mr. Thoreau) perpetual Thanksgiving.

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[1] Search the LOTRW website for “Thanksgiving” reflections from prior years and you’ll find several entries.

[2] In this respect I failed, but not because of the classmates who’d been my concern; I was blindsided by an orthodontist.

[3] You’ll find a longer version of this story in Chapter 10 of Living on the Real World.

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