Friday, March 19, 2010

perturbations: the real fear of climate change

I always like to look at problems from a different perspective.

Lets adapt a new perspective. Suppose you dont buy into the "end of the world from climate change". What do you buy into? Recessions and depressions, hurricanes, tornado outbreaks, earthquakes?

The real fear that I have related to climate change is the subtle perturbations to the overall nonlinear behavior of the earth-human system. After all the recent earthquakes, it is easy to see how devastating these disasters can be. Hurricanes and tornadoes also have something in common with earthquakes: how quickly they devastate a vast area, and how quickly they alter your life, your surroundings, and your perspective.

Climate change will be more subtle. The impacts will be regional. The effect will be tempered by how we respond to it. I tend not to think about the magnitude of the change since that is uncertain. I think more generally about how that change will be so slow compared to our collective attention span (both in a human sense and in a financial priority sense).

The slowness would be like the financial sector meltdown we just experienced. It wont effect everyone equally at least at first. But when the full effect is felt it will already be too late.

This is not a liberal agenda. It is a warning agenda. I feel more comfortable knowing that people are warning me of these impending dangers. A lot like the people of hawaii likely felt when an invisible tsunami approached. They got out of the way and luckily nothing major happened. They were uncertain of its magnitude and yet they acted as if it was going to be big.

What helped was that there was little else going on. There were no distractions. The warning went out early, it was a slow Sunday, and the wave wasn't going to until noon or something. So the perturbations can be distractions or other disasters or other human failure events. Imagine a future war takes up our time and resources. or an earthquake, or other disaster.

Will it cost money to prepare? Yes. Will any human plan be foolproof? No. But it is fortuitous that the very important things we NEED to do be doing are actually beneficial to us and out stewardship of the planet. Cutting greenhouse gases is important.

Need we be reminded that we polluted the planet so badly that we almost removed the ozone layer? And recent estimates put its replacement around 2060. So dont be fooled by the sceptic agenda that CO2 concentrations are so small that they don't matter. The science has a long way to go. You should be encouraged that we are making progress and that the problems seem tractable to get some reasonable answers.

Remember this next time you are in a tornado watch. No models predict tornados directly. Forecasters predict the environment that tornado's are most likely to form in conditional upon thunderstorms forming, and that those thunderstorms will rotate, and that of those that rotate some might produce a tornado (of unknown strength, size, and lifetime). That is a 4 step process. And only when there is a storm with a particular signature does a warning get issued (unless a sighting precedes the radar update). Does that make you think the science is wrong? Or do you take cover when the warning is issued?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Career in science.

I still haven't found my blog voice (in my humble opinion) so I will continue practicing.

The question for today is what does it take to start a career in science. You have the PhD. You get a decent postdoc appointment. What should that experience be like? What does it look like?

The appointment should provide you with 4 things:
1. A mentor who will go above and beyond to provide opportunities for you to excel.
2. travel to conferences to present your work and network. Think 2 for 1.
3. The ability to rapidly publish.
4. A mentor:

Think of this person as a potential parent. They adopt you after you are all grown up and established. The job for them is to use you to further their career (think chores when you were 18-21 and came home from college for the summer). They are preparing you so when they kick you out of the house, you will be comfortably prepared for anything.

So, naturally, your job is to learn, publish, grow, and become confident as an expert. You also are using them to further your career. Therein lies the rub.

The choice of environment then is critical to success. You dont want a situation where you have to compromise any of those 4 needs. You need space and flexibility for creativity. Likewise you need structure to grow. The ability to give and listen to seminars, paper discussions, group meetings, and project collaborations. You also need time.

Time is relative.
1. Publishing takes time. To do original, meaningful research you need data at your fingertips. I typical 1 year postdoc should come complete with data. A two-year should come with resources to make data and have data be supplied to you by the start of the 2nd year. This gives you time to flesh out ideas and publish for the 2nd year.

2. Growing takes time. You have to be immersed in your field. Hear others speak about current issues and be at the forefront of those problems. This is likely where the money is. You also have to become well rounded in things related to your field.
A. reviewing papers or propoals.
B. giving seminars including those in an interview style.
C. getting perspective from other scientists about research styles, writing styles, personality styles, methods and strategies for conducting and publishing high profile research, etc.
D. learning computer techniques including software, hardware, programming, etc.
E. Learning to communicate at work, with your peers, and to people who don't know a damn thing about what you do.

3. Structure is not relative. This includes working on projects that have deliverables (on a timeline) that relate directly to you and your ability to publish. In this case the project is your structure. You can break it up into tasks to address a problem. You know whats expected, you can anticipate the immediate benefit to you (time is still relative here).

Consider these as general guidelines. The advice I have as I wander down this road is this:
"knowing the path is different than walking the path." It is very easy to be sidetracked on any of these, and it is unpredictable how good or bad the consequences will be. And most times, as I am learning now, different future employers are looking for different things. Some will say your body of work is great. Others will say that you aren't good enough. In a very real way, I am living out both of these outcomes.