The life expectancy of the glaciologist

Willi Dansgaard died recently. He gave his name to one half of the Dansgaard-Oeschger events, a sequence of rapid (relatively speaking) climate fluctuations that occurred during the last glacial period where rapid warming (of up to 8C over a matter of a few decades) is followed by a long slow cooling over a few hundreds of years. These events are mostly known from the Greenland ice cores,  but there is evidence that they are in fact a worldwide phenomenon.

Willi Dansgaard with ice core
Willi Dansgaard with ice core (taken from the obituary published by DMI)

Willi Dansgaard will probably be mostly celebrated as the “founder” of ice core science, though of course many people helped to develop the ideas and techniques, some of them are still working in Copenhagen today. Remarkably for a scientist you’ve probably never heard of, a full obituary is given in the LA Times

In the last year or two several eminent glaciologists have passed away, almost all of them well into their 80s and 90s, while some of the founders of the modern discipline, including John Nye and John Glen (who together formulated “Glen’s Flow Law” for ice that describes how glaciers move), are still active in attending meetings and producing papers.

For a profession that specialises in the study of cold, dangerous places (more on my own encounter with mortality on a glacier in a later post) glaciologists seem in general to reach a respectable, and healthy old age. I wonder if this is due to the fact that science teaches a healthy inquisitive attitude to life that keeps people young? Or perhaps those attracted to field based research are naturally likely to be more interested in outdoor activities that help keeping active and fit? On the other hand perhaps it just reflects the fact that people are living longer and healthier lives in general?

Either way, I hope I manage to have as long a productive and healthy life as some of the guiding lights of my profession, even if I can’t hope to replicate their genius.

Science under attack

I had planned another subject for todays blog, but having watched the recent Horizon programme on science under attack on BBC iplayer (still available for those with a British IP address) I thought it tied in rather neatly with why I decided to start this blog.

In the first place the idea came to me to start a blog as a way of practicing my own writing skills. Then secondly I thought I might have something interesting to say. When people find out I’m a climate scientist I often get all sorts of questions about climate change ranging from the basic (is it really happening?) to the more nuanced and complex (how do models work?) to, unfortunately, yet another repetition of the usual climate myths (see below). This blog should be a small window on the world where I write about things that interest me and hopefully are interesting to others.

Cartoon from the Union of Concerned Scientists

As I looked in to the world of blogging, and in particular into blogging on climate related themes, a huge number of blogs came up. Unfortunately, many of them are rather weak on science and very overtly political. In fact a quick scan of the google hits brings up rather more blogs and websites by what might (kindly) be called “sceptics” (or otherwise known as “deniers”) than blogs created by scientists. There is some really good material on the web dealing with climate related issues, for example the excellent blog but in many other places there is a lot of dross and the same empty myths endlessly recycled and repeated (for example, “it’s the little ice age”, “it was warmer in the Medieval period”, “it’s sun spots” etc etc), largely I’m afraid due to lazy and/or politically motivated journalism. All of these common myths have been explained over and over again, usually by people far better qualified, and far more skilled in writing than I, yet somehow they seem to persist.

As the Horizon documentary made clear, this is a source of immense frustration to many in the climate field, including myself, so I feel the time has come to stick my head above the parapet so to speak and start broadcasting my own opinions. At least I hope it will be a small addition to the counterbalancing work done by people like Real Climate and maybe it will help open some minds.

The same documentary blamed scientists for being poor communicators and I would tend to agree with that, it’s hard to talk about uncertainties in models for examples when even the word uncertainty is used very differently in science than in everyday life. On the other hand, this article on communication in the journal Nature by Tim Radford suggests that in fact scientists can be good communicators and he cites such luminaries as Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould and even Richard Dawkins (although I fear the latter has alienated a large part of the audience with his agressive approach to atheism). These are all great examples of great communicators of science, and though I fear I couldn’t possibly get close to their talent, I hope that this blog will help to develop my skills further.

One further point, Ben Goldacre, the Guardian’s excellent bad science columnist is a witty, knowledgeable and hard working advocate of good science who works tirelessly against vested interests, quackery, big pharma and other ‘enemies of reason’. In this post about the Copenhagen climate summit he explores the psychology of climate science and why it is so difficult to communicate. He points out that

‘climate science is difficult. We could discuss everything you needed to know about MMR and autism in an hour: the experimental techniques of epidemiology and other disciplines, how they’ve been misrepresented, the results, strengths, and weaknesses of the key studies. Climate change will take two days of your life, for a relatively superficial understanding: if you’re interested, I’d recommend the IPCC website itself, where they have a series of three executive summaries for policy makers, which are perfectly good pieces of humourless popular science writing.’

This is very true and I am certainly not going to use this blog to explain all issues related to climate change research. In fact, I aim to produce pieces about all sorts of scientific curiosities, natural wonders and society’s response to these. I have imposed two other conditions on myself. Firstly, I should not spend more than an hour on any one post and secondly, I want to post at least twice a week. I’ve broken the latter already, but thanks to my friend Heather I’ve been inspired to try again.