For many years, I made my living by teaching Physics and focusing my research activities on alternative (to fossil fuels) energy sources. My primary focus was on solar energy, occasionally straying into nuclear waste disposal, energy storage and related topics. When I went to parties or other activities that involved random close encounters with strangers, conversations often started with the typical prompt of, “What do you do?” I used to respond that I taught Physics. The usual responses were: “Oh! You must be very smart…” or “I always had difficulties with Physics…” These responses almost always had the effect of shifting the chats to safer (less science-y) grounds.
In 1998, the year that marked a large heat wave in Europe and massive death of the Great Barrier Reef corals, I completely shifted my research and most of my teaching to focus on climate change.
Now, the casual conversations start with the same question but they proceed on different tracks. Everybody has an opinion on climate change. The topic is in the news and in the political debate, with deniers, skeptics and action advocates speaking with almost equal, what I call, “messianic fervor.” It’s a great opportunity to bridge the “two cultures”.
Two weeks ago I returned from a scientific conference on Climate Change in Seattle. I published the main themes of this conference here, in order to emphasize the interdisciplinary aspects of the field. At that conference I presented two papers.
One of them I am going to briefly describe here: For about five years I have collaborated with Lori Scarlatos, a Professor at Stony Brook University that specializes in game design with educational objectives. Our “game” was initially called “Intelligent Energy Choices”, a name that morphed several times over the project’s various iterations. In this “game” the world is represented by the 25 most populated countries and players take the roles of said countries’ “Heads of State.” Their job is to advance the well being of their countries without endangering the planet in the process. They do this job mainly through the purchase of energy to support their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth. The initial conditions of this “world” are derived from real data taken mainly from the World Bank in a fixed reference year. The reference year we used was 2003 so as to give students the opportunity to compare the world of their design with the evolution of the real world through comparison of their countries’ data with the World Bank data after 2003.
In academic settings (as opposed to commercial settings), we generally present the work in various conferences as we go along, so as to benefit from feedback. We presented aspects of this work in an Energy Conference that took place at Stony Brook. A comment from a conference participant was very revealing and rewarding. He said, “This approach can be used in any field that involves complex societal issues that are anchored on science.” His particular interest was health care policy.
The Seattle conference on Climate Change was obviously not the only scientific conference on Climate Change that is being held in 2012. Googling “Climate Change conferences 2012” produces 115,000,000 results. I obviously didn’t check for repetitions and relevance, but going through the first 20 entries clearly showed the wide scope of the field, with many entries advertizing themselves as “working at the intersection of environment and human needs”.
The Seattle meeting was organized by an organization called “Common Ground Publishing.” Common Ground takes:
Some of the pivotal ideas and challenges of our time and builds knowledge communities which cut horizontally across legacy knowledge structures. Sustainability, diversity, learning, the future of the humanities, the nature of interdisciplinarity, the place of the arts in society, technology’s connections with knowledge, the changing role of the university—these are deeply important questions of our time which require interdisciplinary thinking, global conversations, and cross-institutional intellectual collaborations. (From the Program of the conference)
The conference itself was, by the standard of such conferences, rather “intimate.” It included 250 registered participants from 35 different countries. There were no “skeptics” or “deniers.” There were no policy makers and there was no press of any sort. There were only “like minded” participants that came from different directions and backgrounds. There was a lawyer from Berkeley who was trying to sue the US for contributing to the drowning of a Pacific island; there were speakers who were trying to map vulnerable locations inhabited by Native Americans in Alaska and the Northwest. There were Intermediate and High School teachers that described efforts to use Climate Change to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) topics in the corresponding schools, etc…
There were no loud voices or “messianic fervor” – but it was a great time and a good opportunity for extensive networking.